A Reading List of Women Rewriting the West
Rae DelBianco, author of ‘Rough Animals,’ on the women who subvert the toxic tropes of the Western
I spent my teenage years with bitterly callused hands and my neck sunburned red. I’ve been kicked in the face by a steer the size of a car and I stick like velcro to rank horses. But, in 2017, when I had my first ever call with a New York publisher, his opening words to me were: “As a young woman, what gives you a right to write about this stuff?”
The Western is the unfortunate casualty of a double definition: it is at once a living world and a species of genre fiction. This summer, I published my debut novel, Rough Animals, the story of a young Utah rancher, his twin sister, a fourteen year old female cartel assassin, and the harrowing family secret that their war against the elements and each other unravels. Rough Animals centers on the human costs of the everyday violence required in living off the land. While my farming life took place in Pennsylvania, the grit and dirt and animal struggles in the novel are all my own experience.
Two of Rough Animals’s three main characters are women: one adept at surviving in the woods, the other at killing in the desert. They are at once the true story of the West and a challenge to the Western: the real wilderness, from Utah all the way to my homeland in Pennsylvania, requires skill, strength, competence, and courage to eke a living from the ground. There are no “damsels in distress.” The West was and is a cruel place, and none of the following authors deny that. But if we step away from the Western as genre — the dramatic tropes, the binary good versus evil, the sexism and bigotry — we can yet look to the West as the core piece of our American identity that it still is. The following stories do not rewrite the West in the sense of updating a genre. They are among those few who are telling it truthfully, part of a voice that has been quietly persisting and is now, finally, growing too loud to be dismissed.
The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx
My all time favorite short story is a tale of time, age, and the brutality of nature. The Half-Skinned Steer tracks an octogenarian’s return to his Wyoming childhood ranch for the funeral of his brother. On the way, he relives with intensity the discovery of sexuality that made him leave the rural life decades before.
When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz
I first heard Diaz read at the Tin House Summer Workshop, the same week that Manuel Gonzales lectured to us on her poem “A Woman With No Legs”, a deeply moving, emotionally ravaging, and tactile work about a Mojave woman with diabetes. As a fellow queer woman writer, I admire her voice for the LGBT community as much as I admire her art.
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
This short story collection is as forceful and unapologetic as the title suggests. In equal parts beautiful and brutal, Watkins’ West never shies away from difficult emotions, personalities, or truths in a landscape of chaos.
The Proper Order of Seasons by Kimberly Baker Jacovich
Tracking a former Civil War soldier’s homecoming to Texas, The Proper Order of Seasons is as emotionally riveting as it is violent. I believe that violence, when done well, can be one of the most powerful tools in literature, and Jacovich wields it to its full potential.
The Untold by Courtney Collins
While The Untold takes place in Australia, its capturing of ranch life, wilderness, and life’s frontiers makes it too relevant not to include here. With a first chapter narrated by a dead baby, Collins is intent on overturning the difficult and brutal in life, and the reader is too fascinated not to join on the ride.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
Kiesling’s debut is truly exceptional in its portrayal of motherhood as her main character navigates a desert world and the changes of her postpartum body. The book is a stunningly candid look at the ongoing fight in what we call “holding one’s life together,” as well as the first time I have ever seen one of the Carhartt jackets I grew up with on the cover of a book.
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
Another 2018 debut, Abel’s take on the West creates a world that mirrors our own within the Colorado desert. Abel looks at action, in all of its forms, and its role in our lives as we strive for meaning. Her narrative is among those defining our contemporary relationship with the West — one of activism, rather than the exploration and exploitation of its violent past centuries.
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
I must start and finish with Annie Proulx, one of the greatest writers the West has ever had. Brokeback Mountain is not only a landmark work for the LGBT community, it is the most resonant story I have ever read on regret. Proulx captures the pain of choosing the safe option in life out of fear, then realizing too late that going after what and who you loved most would have been worth every risk.
About the Author
Rae DelBianco grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she raised livestock, founding a beef cattle operation at fourteen. She attended Duke University on a Robertson Scholarship, and is an alumnus of Curtis Brown’s Six Month Novel-Writing Course in London and of Tin House Summer Workshop. Rough Animals is her first novel, and has been featured by Vogue, Vulture, New York Magazine, NY Post, Publishers Weekly, Nylon, Southern Living, Outside Magazine, Chicago Review of Books, Refinery29, Ralph Lauren Magazine, and Literary Hub.