Every Friday night during my childhood, my family ordered pizza and rented a few movies from the local video store. A few of us piled onto the couch and recliners while everyone else made beds on the floor of the living room. After pizza, popcorn was always served. Sometimes we’d watch a new release, but more often than not, Dad would make us watch one of his favorite westerns.
I didn’t get westerns back then. Many that we watched were old, even in the 90s. My teenage self deemed the acting cheesy, the effects lousy, and the plots unoriginal. Some men live, some men die, good beats evil––the end.
Dad would laugh at the tough-guy lines and rewind them to watch a short scene again and again as he mimicked the delivery in his best cowboy voice. We’d groan in unison, begging Dad to press play and start the movie again so we could hurry up and be done.
When my husband and I were dating, he asked me if I had ever watched Tombstone. It didn’t ring a bell, so he determined we would watch it the next chance we had. I was not impressed when I realized it was a western. At best, I thought men had a weird dream of living in the frontier days and wrangling cows. At worst, I thought men liked the predictable, violent plots of bad guys slinging guns against the good guys.
A few years ago, everything changed when I read my first western. Westerns may be a tad formulaic at times, but what westerns share in common makes for some of the best stories.
In the west, there is no shortage of men. They have grueling work that usually earns them no fame, but it does make a decent home and provide for their family. Men live by a code of honor passed down from generation to generation. To not live by that code is to be a coward or, even worse, a villain. Men defend the weak, especially women and children, they care for their families, and they don’t fight unless they must. And when they must fight, they fight until they win or sacrifice their lives. It reminds me of my husband and the type of man we desire our son to become.
Women in the west are no wimps either. They allow men to protect them, but they are not doormats. Women in the west know how to fight and will when necessary. Women in the west also work hard. They have no modern conveniences and willingly accept the responsibility of domestic duties as a way to love their families.
Good and evil are at war in the west. There is always an enemy lurking around the happy town or ranch, disrupting the peace with chaos. People will be hurt, and there will be suffering, but justice is always served, and the enemy is always defeated. It sounds a lot like the victory we are promised through Christ.
The more westerns I’ve read, the more I’ve come to love the genre. Even though I probably wouldn’t last a day in the west, it may be my favorite type of novel to lose myself in. I’m thrilled that my children have found westerns that they enjoy also. I want to fill them up with books that teach their moral imaginations what makes a person honorable and virtuous. I want them to know that evil is real and ubiquitous but will never win. And the west reminds us of that again and again.
Here are some of my family’s favorite westerns:
Hank the Cowdog series
John R. Erickson’s Hank stories are inspired by his life on a ranch and display Erickson’s belief that “good stories should nourish the spirit just as a good meal nourishes the body.” Hank is a ranch dog with a short attention span and a keen ability to get into trouble. His appetite and cravings often lead him to do things he ultimately doesn’t want to, echoing Paul in Romans 7.
Hank’s not your usual hero. He’s not particularly handsome and charismatic. He’s not strong or exceptionally gifted. He’s actually quite flawed and often lacks courage. But in that way, he’s the best sort of hero––a human sort of hero.
When my son was in elementary school, he read the entire Hank series. I miss finding him curled up with Hank, giggling. We’ll keep our Hank books in our library with the hopes that someday I’ll find grandchildren laughing over Hank’s antics.
The Little Britches series
I’ve written about my love for the first book in this series before, but the whole series is worth your time. My children always begged for one more chapter as I read the series to them. The Moodys spend some time back East in a few books, but the same values of hard work, honor, and loyalty are a part of the Moody family regardless of where they live.
Based on the author’s life, Ralph Moody is always facing adventures and hardships. The series begins when the Moody family moves to Colorado to live on a ranch. The Moodys face plenty of setbacks, but they work together and persevere. Life on the ranch is not without sadness, but the Moodys face their grief with hope and determination.
For Middle-Grade Readers
When a mysterious man named Shane shows up in a Wyoming valley, he finds a home and job as a cowhand at the Starretts’ ranch. Most people in the valley are suspicious of Shane, but the Starretts find him reliable and hardworking. And when the claim of a cattle driver threatens the Starretts’ property, Shane proves to be loyal to the Starretts and a tough match for a bully.
Told from the perspective of the Starretts’ young son, Shane is told with the wonder and innocence of a child who has found a hero.
My husband, son, and I read this book with a group of friends. The group enjoyed the book and our discussion so much that we still talk about it years later. And maybe the highest praise I can offer: one of the couples who read this novelwith us named their first son Shane.
The Golden Stallion’s Victory
Charlie faces trouble from his neighbor Duncan when Charlie’s stallion, Golden Boy, breaks free and steals mares from the neighboring ranch. Duncan is determined to ruin Charlie’s family ranch, and every time Golden Boy wanders onto Duncan’s property, Charlie discovers new depths to Duncan’s threats. When a landslide diverts the water from Charlie’s ranch to Duncan’s, time is limited before Charlie’s father has no choice but to sell. Charlie must think quickly, or he’ll not only lose Golden Boy but also the family’s beloved land and livelihood.
Author Rutherford George Montgomery wrote several other Golden Stallion books, but this is the only one I’ve read. I’m hoping to find others to add to our family library.
For Older Readers
When Tom Chaney kills Frank Ross for his horse and $150, Ross’s 14-year-old daughter Mattie is determined to avenge her father’s death. She hires the meanest U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, and Texas Ranger LaBeouf to accompany her into Indian Territory to bring the killer to justice.
Indian Territory is no place for a 14-year-old girl, but stubborn Mattie Ross isn’t going home until she completes her task and sees Chaney brought to justice. Ambushes, viper pits, and gun-slinging prove in the end that Mattie Ross does indeed have grit.
The Lonesome Gods
When Johannes’ parents fell in love, they ran away because Don Isidro, Johannes’ grandfather, planned to kill Johannes’ dad. The family lived happily for a few years, wandering around the country until Johannes’ mother died. Not too long after the death of his mother, Johannes learns his father is terminally ill as well. The father and son begin to travel west to Los Angeles, where they hope Don Isidro will take Johannes in. But the grudge has not been forgiven, and Don Isidro not only wants to kill Johannes’ father but also Johannes.
The Lonesome Gods has all the adventure a western should have. But it’s so much more than just an exciting story. The Lonesome Gods is the story of a father’s love and legacy, a boy’s education, and what it means to be a man. It also warns how the desire for revenge poisons a person and shows the power of love.