Chris Hannan’s top 10 tales of the American frontier

The novelist finds some startlingly fresh stories – from Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Annie Proulx and others – in the old west

Panning for gold in California, ca 1890

Panning for gold in California, ca 1890.

Missy is the first novel from playwright Chris Hannan, whose work has been produced by the RSC and the National Theatre of Scotland among others. Set in California in 1862, it tells the story of irrepressible, opium-addicted Dol McQueen, on the run in the wild west from a murderous pimp whose supply of “missy” she has stolen.

“I suppose when you think of the frontier – any frontier, a gold rush or an oil workers’ camp – the people are the same size but somehow the place is lonelier and seems bigger, and that makes people go just a little bit mad. The American west in 1862 was – in terms of suicide, drug consumption, divorce and sexual freedom – a hundred years ahead of its time. What went on in their heads? Then, when I started writing Missy, I got interested in other writers and all their completely different ideas of the frontier …”

1. Roughing It by Mark Twain

A young Mark Twain left Missouri in 1861, crossed the continent by stagecoach, and got his first job as a journalist in the biggest, roughest mining town on the western frontier. He wrote it all up in this travel book; the miners and sharpers and gunslingers he met and drank with, and the greed and fantasising that drove everyone on the frontier, himself included.

2. My Antonia by Willa Cather

“I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.” Something about the loneliness of the west and its landscape seems to act as a magnifier at the moral level, lending in this wonderful 1918 novel enormous scale to small acts of kindness or spite between isolated pioneer farmers in Nebraska, and a sense of the epic to the small-town life of the heroine.

3. The Plains Across by John D Unruh

One of the finest histories of the west ever written, it tells the story of the people who made the trek in covered wagons across the great American wilderness. What kind of people could afford the cost of the journey? How many whites and Indians died? What was it actually like to meet with the Pawnee?

4. Close Range by Annie Proulx

As well as Brokeback Mountain, this impressive volume of stories includes The Half-Skinned Steer, selected by John Updike in 1999 for Best American Short Stories of the Century. Beneath the surreal lunacy of the frontier there is a darker madness, and Proulx creates stories and prose that can conduct all that insane lightning.

5. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

Why do tales of the frontier appeal to city people? I first heard about this story of a 16-year-old boy and a wolf from a Glasgow taxi-driver. He was so excited about it he couldn’t stop himself telling me the plot from beginning to end, pausing only to hint at the metaphysical meaning of the wolf.

6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

There are huge 19th-century paintings of mountain lakes in the west, teeming with animals that have never seen humans. Nothing captures the thrill of entering that world, being strangers in it, better than this. There’s a scene when a ring of wolves surround the little girl’s prairie homestead and howl; she can hear them breathe on the other side of the log wall.

7. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Western movies are basically weepies for men. Think of the elegiac scores, and the yearning that moves even the most hard-bitten cowboys for a better, nobler, simpler world (with fewer women and immigrants). Thank goodness for the offbeat 1970 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Chief George, a touchingly funny account of the passing of the Sioux, based on Thomas Berger’s wonderful 1964 picaresque novel written in the western tall tale tradition.

8. Mollie: the Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford 1857-66

“Monday July 3rd. This has been a day of horrors. There has been four men killed in saloons.” Mollie had the total western experience, from travelling on steamboats to living in a log cabin, running into Indians to joining a gold rush. At the same time she’s a 19-year-old girl who wants to look good, fall in love, write bad poetry and think deep thoughts. Captivating.

9. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Written when the frontier had only gotten as far west as New York state, this 1826 classic foresaw the whole tragic history of the American frontier and the fate of the Indian. Many books are famous for their opening lines; this lands a punch with the poignancy of its final sentence. “In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”

10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One of the things that damage the mind of Native American narrator Chief Bromden is the damming of the Columbia River where his tribe used to fish, and maverick hero McMurphy announces himself in the exaggerated, boastful folk language of frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett. Kesey’s loony bin is what is left of the frontier after it has been half-murdered and then abandoned – like Proulx’s half-skinned steer.


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