Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Truly Gritty

My Top Five GRITTY Westerns for kids.

Everybody has their own definition of a “western”. Here’s my definition:
A Western doesn’t have to have cowboys or Indians but it
should have horses and/or mules.
should be set in the American west in the 1800s.
should have six-shooters, smoking, gambling and drinking.
should have a hero who fights against overwhelming odds.
should have some harsh but beautiful landscapes & big skies.

Because Westerns are usually about survival of individuals in the extreme situations of a frontier world, they are usually too violent and politically incorrect for children. The ones that ARE aimed at children are often too sanitized for my liking. I like gritty reality with a dollop of danger. So here are five of my favourite Western books; ones suitable for kids but which also have grit, grime and menace. I’ve placed them in order of ascending grittiness.

1. The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (U) by Karen Cushman
This is the tale of a girl in a California mining camp during the American Gold Rush. I like this story because it transports you to another time and place, with wonderful details about the plants, animals and climate of the Sierra Nevada mountains combined with food, clothing and equipment of gold miners in the 1850s. This is probably the safest of the five books on my list, because it was written especially for children, but like all good stories it is compelling enough for adults to enjoy, too. Plus it has plenty of grit and grime.

2. Hondo (PG) by Louis L’Amour
Louis L’Amour is considered one of the greatest Western writers and this is one of his greatest books. The story follows a strong, silent hero named Hondo who helps a woman and her son living in hostile Apache territory. The best bit of the book is a section at the end where Hondo teaches the boy how to track and hunt Indian-fashion. The John Wayne movie is good but doesn’t have the tips about tracking and desert survival.

3. True Grit (PG) by Charles Portis
This deadpan masterpiece by Charles Portis is one of my top ten fave books of all time. It recounts the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross who hires a fat, half-blind Marshal to help her avenge her father’s cold-blooded murder. Both of them have ‘grit’, (which can mean ‘courage’ as well as crunchy dirt.) True Grit is one of those books you can read over and over and always find something new. Both movie versions are good, but the book is better. Best of all is the audio book, read by American author Donna Tartt. She captures Mattie Ross’s voice perfectly.

4. Boone’s Lick (PG) by Larry McMurtry
Like Charles Portis, Larry McMurtry is another great American author. His Pulitzer-prize-winning Lonesome Dove was made into a highly-acclaimed TV mini-series. His screenplay of Brokeback Mountain won an Oscar. Boone’s Lick is based on the real events of an Indian massacre in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. The narrator is fifteen-year-old Shay. Some scenes are quite brutal, but it’s suitable for readers 10+. As with True Grit, there is a superb audiobook version, read by actor Will Patton, who makes McMurtry’s drily funny characters even better than they are on the page. No mean feat.

5. St. Agnes' Stand (15) by Thomas Eidson
WARNING: This book has harrowing scenes of torture by Apache. It made me understand why you always save the last bullet for yourself in an Indian attack. (gulp!) But if you have a strong stomach, it is a beautiful Western with a powerful message of love and redemption. And don’t forget my new book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, which  falls between True Grit and Boone’s Lick on the True Grittiness scale.

Western Mystery #1, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, is out in the US now. Western Mystery #2, The Case of the Petrified Man, is coming in 2013. 

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