Between the lines: How the West was won, as told between book covers

House of the Rising Sun A Novel By James Lee Burke
House of the Rising Sun A Novel By James Lee Burke

The states west of the Mississippi River still reverberate with the frontier mythos, as the so-called “settling” of the Old West mostly in the 19th century had such a profound and lasting effect on who we are as a nation.

Culturally speaking, the Old West has been mythologized in thousands of books (Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey come to mind), movies (“The Revenant” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a frontiersman will be released Christmas Day) and TV series, especially in the 1950s and 1960s (“Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” had record-setting runs).

With that as context, let’s look at a few new Western titles of note:

▪ Much-honored master storyteller James Lee Burke continues his eight-title Holland family saga with “House of the Rising Sun,” a character-driven action epic set in the early 1900s (Simon & Schuster, $28, 448 pages). Texas Ranger Hackberry Holland is an unpredictable, hard-drinking, larger-than-life character whose best friend is a modified Colt Peacemaker pistol. But it’s his wits that get him through many deadly moments as he searches for his long-lost adult son against a backdrop of a “modernized” western landscape.

Burke is best known for his 20-title Dave Robicheaux thriller series, yet his body of work has transcended genre to become what critics and academicians regard as literature, thoughtful with wisdom such as this passage from “Rising Sun”: “People were not what they said. They were not what they thought. They were not what they promised. People were what they did. When the final tally was done, nothing else mattered.”

▪ As a sequel to his best-selling novel “Glorious” and book two of a trilogy, Jeff Guinn has “Buffalo Trail.” (Putnam, $27, 432 pages). It follows the adventures of Cash McLendon as he flees his arch enemy in the Arizona Territory and ends up in the brawling town of Dodge City. There, he throws in with a band of buffalo hunters bound for Texas, known as the “forbidden territory.”

They build Adobe Walls, a camp of hunters and merchants, and go about the business of harvesting buffalo hides from the last remaining herds. What they don’t know is a force of 2,000 Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne warriors has targeted the camp for destruction.

▪ Sacramento’s resident literary superstar William T. Vollmann invested 10 years (on and off) in “The Dying Grass,” the fifth in his seven-title “Seven Dreams” project (Viking, $55, 1,376 pages). The epic is about the colonization of North America by Europeans and the resulting conflicts between Indians and settlers, a typical big-canvas project for the National Book Award winner.

The novel follows the 1,170-mile fighting retreat of a band of Nez Perce as they were pursued by a murderous troop of U.S. Army soldiers. Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph (whose native name translated to Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain) hoped to find safety across the Canadian border. After a decisive battle in Montana, only 40 miles short of the border, he surrendered in 1877, telling his people, “My heart is sick and sad. I will fight no more forever.”

▪ Author-screenwriter Chris Enss of Grass Valley adds another title to her list of 30 nonfiction books about the frontier with “Entertaining Women: Actresses, Dancers and Singers in the Old West” (TwoDot, $17, 224 pages). “We lived near Tombstone, Ariz., when I was a kid, and I hung out there,” she said. “I got hooked on the Old West and what it represents – the adventurous spirit of the people who ventured out to tame a rugged land.”

Enss and her writing partner, movie producer (“Star Wars”) Howard Kazanjian, are shopping their script of “The Cowboy, the Senorita and Trigger, Too.” It’s the biography of screen legends Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans. Trigger was Rogers’ golden palomino, a horse that could perform 80 tricks.

▪ Though it won’t publish until March 29, be on the lookout for “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, with a simple-sounding plot that belies its grand storytelling and emotional depths (William Morrow, $20, 224 pages).

The time is 1870, the place is northern Texas. Retired Army Capt. Jefferson Kidd, now on the other side of 70, makes a meager living stopping at remote towns to read newspaper items to audiences eager for entertainment.

One night he’s offered a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old orphan girl on a 400-mile journey to be united with her aunt and uncle, who are strangers to her. Until recently, Johanna was a captive of the Kiowa for three years, and in every sense is part of that culture, to the point of no longer speaking English. Their cross-country sojourn is full of drama, danger, tears and joy.

Jiles is the best-selling author of “Enemy Women,” “Stormy Weather,” “The Color of Lightning” and “Lighthouse Island.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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