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Western heroines that break the mold

I grew up reading my father’s collection of westerns.  As a girl I enjoyed those books for what they were – adventure stories set in the great outdoors, with handsome, rugged heroes and spirited heroines. Most followed a pattern where the heroine was a prize to be won by the hero after he proved himself worthy – most, but not all. My favourites were, and still are, the ones that broke the mold.

Louis L’Amour, one of my favourite western authors, included interesting, strong female characters in many of his books – Nita Riordan in the Lance Kilkenny stories, Angie Lowe in Hondo, the fierce elderly widow Emily Talon in Ride the Dark Trail. Nita is an independent saloon owner, Angie a rancher whose husband has deserted her. Emily stands off the bad guys on her own, with her rifle and her wits. L’Amour even wrote one novel with a female protagonist, Echo Sackett, who ends up saving the hero.

Zane Grey, my other childhood favourite Western author, also broke the standard pattern on occasion. Grey had plenty to say about women, especially after the First World War when social mores changed so drastically. He expressed his views most clearly in his novel Call of the Canyon, through his heroine Carley Burch. Carley, a wealthy New York socialite, is living the flapper life while her fiancé Glenn Kilbourne is out west, recuperating from lung trouble after being gassed during the war. Carley likes a drink or two, enjoys a good party, and while not unfaithful, doesn’t mind attention from men. 

Glenn recovers his health after a near brush with death, and when Carley goes west to see him, she finds herself totally unsuited to his new life as a rancher. She returns to New York, and Grey uses her and her ‘new woman’ friends to point out all that he sees as wrong in post war society. In the end, when Carley decides to go west permanently and marry Glenn, she leaves her friends with a blistering speech:

” You doll women, you parasites, you toys of men, you silken-wrapped geisha girls, you painted, idle, purring cats, you parody of the females of your species–find brains enough if you can to see the doom hanging over you and revolt before it is too late!”

Wow! Just wow. As sexist as this sounds, and is, especially when taken out of context like this, the underlying theme of the story is that everyone, male or female, needs a worthwhile object in life – something Carley and her friends have never had. Born in 1872, Grey can be forgiven for believing that wifehood and motherhood were every woman’s highest calling.

Carley Burch is never a prize to be won by the hero. On the contrary, she has to win him. Glenn’s whole perspective on life has changed, and that leaves him disappointed in the woman he once loved. That doesn’t change until Carley conquers herself, much as heroines of modern romances do. Her transformation is the story.

At the end of Call of the Canyon Carley goes west to stay, only to be told as a cruel joke that Glenn has married someone else. Circumstances make this believable. In spite of her heartbreak, Carley is determined to carve out a meaningful life for herself. She uses her money to establish a ranch of her own, and learns to manage it independently before she discovers that Glenn is not married and they reach their happily-ever-after. How modern.

It’s easy to dismiss Westerns – or thrillers, or cozy mysteries, or romances – as formula stories. I find genre fiction a lot more fun to read when you look past the tropes and appreciate the ways in which authors break the mold.

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