The American and Canadian Prairies are usually portrayed as one of two things: Either a desolate landscape inspiring ennui or a homely locale containing more genuine folk. These novels prove that the Prairies hold anything but; From frontier westerns to psychological explorations of the self, these ten works assure that literature leaves no land—however barren—untouched.
The Englishman’s Boy – Guy Vanderhaeghe (1996)
The stark frontier borderlands of 19th century Canada and America is described in brutal but vivid language, as a young Hollywood writer attempts to recreate the awful Cypress Hills massacre that killed 23 Native American Dakotans. Vanderhaeghe portrays the haunting beauty of Big Sky country in ways that few others can.
My Ántonia – Willa Cather (1918)
Willa Cather tells the story of two men exploring their memories of an immigrant woman from Bohemia who inspires nostalgia of the Nebraska prairies. Combining the experience of early 20th century America with carefully crafted language reminiscent of Henry James and Sherwood Anderson, Cather presents a non-judgmental view of the pioneering melting pot.
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
The great epic of the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s unforgettable chronicle of the Joads, an impoverished Oklahoman family on the road to California, became an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Steinbeck portrayed the horrible conditions of migrant workers escaping the dustbowl, and in the process, eulogized the death of a quixotic American dream.
Sinclair Lewis – Main Street (1920)
Demonstrating the dark side of the immigrant Midwest, Sinclair Lewis dissects the double-sided nature of small-town Minnesota as his heroine, the diffident Carol Milford, succumbs to the dangers of judgement and isolation.
Richard Ford – Canada (2012)
When two unassuming North Dakotan parents botch a bank robbery in Montana, their son gets sent to Canada, only to be thrust into a deadly cycle of murder and betrayal. Told in a calm and calculated voice, Richard Ford’s hypnotic account of border country is just as difficult to forget than it is to put down.
As for me and My House – Sinclair Ross (1941)
First dismissed as a tawdry slice-of-Canadian-Prairie-Life, subsequent critical interpretations turned this novel into a troubling psychological tale of cabin fever on the fringes of empty Saskatchewan. Through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, we experience the poetic energy of the Canadian landscape in its purest form.
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry (1985)
A Odyssean journey disguised as a shoot-em-up Western, Lonesome Dove explores the edge of the Prairies from Texas to Montana as a fugitive convinces to Texas Rangers to drive a herd of cattle North. Both a striking exploration of the American foothills and a introspective examination of old age, Lonesome Dove is a Western for the serious mind.
Who Has Seen the Wind – W.O Mitchell (1947)
W.O. Mitchell’s most famous work is an Anne of Green Gables for Prairie life, where a child learns his way in the world among the comical social sphere of small-town Saskatchewan. The novel has since become a seminal Canadian classic ingrained in the hearts of children and adults alike. This novel has become proof that it is not the location but the people who define who you are.
Gilead – Marylinne Robinson (2004)
A reflection of a life lived told in meditative but powerful prose is set in the quiet Iowa town of Gilead, Robinson chronicles a pastor’s ancestors all the way back to the civil war. The novel captures the human condition through small but moving events, reminding us that the most potent acts are usually free of bells and whistles.
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote (1966)
Though a factual account of a shocking 1959 quadruple murder in rural Kansas, Capote’s stylistic interventions turned a bland description into a literary firestorm. Combining the struggles of an quixotic investigation with the intimate sketch a two troubled fugitives, the book has been attributed with establishing the true-crime genre and subsequently influencing our contemporary representation of crime.
An excellent list! Thanks for posting.
Ok, it’s New Mexico and technically not prairie, but what about “Sea of Grass?” An amazing novella about the clash of ranchers and farmers.
Where’s Laura Ingalls Wilder?!
My thoughts exactly!
Frederick Manfred, Lois Phillps Hudson, Ole Rolvaag….
Half of these books have nothing to do with “the prairie.”
I’d add A.B. Guthrie’s seminal work The Big Sky.
William Maxwell – They Came like Swallows and So Long, See you Tomorrow.
This is indeed a sad list. You left out, Meridel LeSeuer, arguably along with Willa Cather, the greatest writer of the American Prairie. And where is Agnes Smedley who wrote Daughter of Earth? How easily the great women writers get lost and forgotten while far lesser lights cast their dim shadows on lists like these!
President Teddy Roosevelt wrote several notable books and articles depicting the American prairie in never to be forgotten haunting language.