The Victorian West Welcomes Sarah Johnson

Readers of historical fiction may already know Sarah Johnson. She is a reference librarian at Eastern Illinois University, but she is best known to the literary world as the editor of the Historical Novel Review, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society, a position she has held for the past 11 years.  She has written two books surveying the field of historical novels, covering over 7,000 books--a resource to both librarians building their collections as well as lovers of the genre.

She reviews novels and interviews authors on her excellent blog:  Reading the Past
Today she has been kind enough to visit my site and share her personal definition of the Victorian West novel and her choices for the best representations of this sub-genre.

Reading the Victorian West: A Few Personal Picks
By Sarah Johnson

I’d like to thank Michelle for the invitation to write a guest post for her blog.  Although I’m a native Yankee now living in Illinois, I’ve spent many a summer vacation driving around and visiting historic towns out west.  To me, the phrase “Victorian West” presents a fascinating study in contrasts: rough-and-tumble frontier settings meet up with high society manners, elegant dress, ornate Victorian-style architecture, and classic small-town politics.  Reading historical novels with these settings lets me envision how people lived and interacted at this exciting point in time.  Here are some of my favorites.

Richard Wheeler (who I see has recently contributed a guest post here himself) is a superb author of historical westerns.  Whether he’s writing biographical fiction that reveals the human side of famous western personalities or sprawling epics about mining boomtowns notched high in the Rockies, his novels illustrate the diversity of the Western experience, and they’re remarkably free of stereotypes or clichés.  Second Lives, which may be my all-time favorite western novel, not only showcases Denver at the height of the Gilded Age but also serves as a brilliant character study of down-on-their luck men and women hoping for a new shot at life.

Among other Colorado-set novels, Ann Parker’s Inez Stannert mysteries set in 1870s-80s Leadville, beginning with Silver Lies, center on a strong woman striving to make her way in a man’s world.  A straight-talking saloon owner who can deal cards with the best of them, Inez also gets to show her vulnerable side, and her romantic interest, the Rev. Justice Sands, gets my vote for sexiest minister west of the Mississippi

Leadville’s most famous celebrity couple, Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, figures in many historical novels (John Vernon’s All for Love may be the best known), but what of Horace’s long-suffering wife, Augusta?  Jane Candia Coleman’s magnificent first-person novel Matchless (alt. title Silver Queen) demonstrates not only her independence and fortitude, roughing it as the first woman in Colorado’s silver mining country, but also her wisdom in knowing how to stay afloat during the era’s big reversals of fortune.  And while we’re spending time high in the Colorado mountains, I can’t resist mentioning Michelle’s own Never Come Down, an entertaining multi-period romantic drama set in the ghost town of Leap Year. I love novels that unravel genealogical connections, and the suspenseful plot kept me guessing.

Moving further West, Cecelia Holland’s duology Railroad Schemes and Lily Nevada follows one of her most fascinating fictional creations, bookish gambler’s daughter Lily Viner, as she teams up with an Irish outlaw on heists along the rails in 1850s Los Angeles and later becomes a famous actress in San Francisco.  Nora Simms, the prostitute heroine of Erika Mailman’s Woman of Ill Fame, establishes her independence in a very different sort of way, aiming to climb society’s ladder one customer at a time.  This unabashedly bawdy tale stands out thanks to Nora’s witty narrative voice and joyous, unbridled greed. Mailman presents Gold Rush-era San Francisco as an ethnically diverse, colorful place with opportunity and risks aplenty, especially for those in Nora’s profession.

Women kept up with social proprieties even in isolated 19th-century frontier towns, and Jeanne Williams’ Lady of No-Man’s Land appealed to me because of its resourceful heroine, a Swedish immigrant who uses her talent for sewing to make a living in a new and unfamiliar country.  Kirsten Mordal, only seventeen when the novel begins, endures many hardships, including the death of her sister, brutal weather conditions, treacherous outlaws, and the knowledge that the man she loves is already married.  It’s not a depressing story at all, however, but one of strength, patience, and triumph.  You can’t go wrong with any of Williams’ western novels, particularly if you like reading about strong women overcoming adverse circumstances.

Likewise, one doesn’t think of the plains of north Texas in the late 19th century as the pinnacle of high society (and it wasn’t), but Clay Reynolds’ The Tentmaker depicts the growth of a western town from its earliest beginnings as a gathering of handmade tent-shelters to a full-fledged settlement with a saloon, general store, and even a madam-with-an-attitude.  Victorian virtues didn’t always trump the lawlessness of the rowdy frontier, but I had a great time watching these colorful characters attempt to establish a civilizing influence on the gritty and violent western landscape.


Patricia Stoltey said...

I haven't read any of these except Ann Parker's series, which I love. Thanks for the great information.


Cheryl said...

Thanks for sharing your picks with us. I can't wait to check these out.


Michelle Black said...

I can't imagine anyone with more knowledge of historical fiction than Sarah. I am so proud to host her today and hope she becomes a frequent guest.

Sarah Johnson said...

Thank you so much, Michelle! It's been a pleasure being here. Patricia and Cheryl, I hope you'll enjoy these books as much as I did. They're among my first choices when I'm asked for recommendations of Western fiction.

Sally said...

I've been looking for a good list of victorian westerns and came across your blog. Thanks! I can't wait to start reading.

Shelley said...

Lovely post. I think Kaki Warner's work would fit into this time period as well.

Mine is also north Texan plains, but two generations later!

Michelle Black said...

Thanks for commenting, Shelley. I just stopped by and visited Dust Bowl Poetry. Fascinating.