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18 must-read books with connections to Colorado

This extensive list of novels help us understand Colorado as a place and as an idea.

By Tom Cronin
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(Jeff Bailey, The Denver Post)

By Tom Cronin, Special to The Denver Post

While Colorado has been home to some of the nation’s most gifted writers, many of them didn’t write about Colorado. James Salter (“Downhill Racer”), Leon Uris (“Exodus”), Robert Heinlein (“Strangers in a Strange Land”), Joanne Greenberg (“I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”), John Fante, Damon Runyon and Hunter Thompson come to mind.

Willa Cather’s protagonist in “The Song of the Lark” grows up in the fictional Colorado town of “Moonstone.” Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” famously describes rogue escapades in Denver. Ken Kesey was born in La Junta, and mega-selling Western storyteller Louis L’Amour had a 1,000-acre ranch west of Durango for the last decade or so of his life.

In her novel “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand located her hero’s libertarian nirvana/boot camp-for-the-Revolution in Galt Gulch, modeled on the town of Ouray, where she occasionally vacationed. Drawn as if by an inspirational magnet to the majestic mountains of Colorado, scientist/entrepreneur John Galt founds a new community, where he and his fellow revolutionaries  and rugged individualists plot the overthrow of the bumbling looters and socialists who have been ruining America.

How fitting that the Libertarian Party was founded in Colorado in the early 1970s.

Aspenites brag that they have as many novelists — like Clifford Irving and Thompson — as they have restaurants, but Aspen is outmatched for writers who have lived in Denver and Boulder.  There are countless Colorado novelists, including one by former governor Dick Lamm, who co-authored “1988” (with Arnie Grossman) a fictional account of a maverick independent running for president. Celebrated Taos writer John Nichols told me that “The Milagro Beanfield War” was in good part inspired by a Colorado/New Mexico border community called Costilla, a few miles south of San Luis.  Nichols’ dad lived and taught at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs for many years.

What follows is a list of novels that help us understand Colorado, both as a place and as an idea.  This is not an argument that these works are the best Colorado novels, or the only ones.They are stories that are widely read and highly recommended by people around the state — or should be.

The mountain town of Ouray, Colorado, the town Ayn Rand used for inspiration for “Atlas Shrugged.” (Amy Brothers, The Denver Post)

1. James Michener, “Centennial:  A Novel” (1974) is a  magisterial account of early settlers on the South Platte. It describes, in wondrous detail, the creation of the fictional town of Centennial (not to be confused with the more recent Denver ‘burb);  it provides a sweeping multi-century history of the geology, anthropology, and water and ranching politics of the region. Michener came here and lived in Greeley, interviewed hundreds of locals and captured much of the pioneering spirit as well as prejudices of life along the Platte River.

It may be long, but “Centennial” is beautifully written and is the essential Colorado Lit 101 novel.

2. “Butcher’s Crossing” (1960) was written by a longtime University of Denver professor of English, John Williams. In 1972, Williams won a National Book Award for “Augustus,” yet “Butcher’s Crossing” is his best novel. It tells the story of Will Andrews, a young Bostonian and Harvard dropout, who instead of taking a year’s study abroad, is inspired by reading Emerson and others to come West in the early 1870s to Colorado — both to find himself and to explore America’s great frontier.

Young Andrews joins a buffalo hunting expedition in the fictional west Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing.  Most of the novel is about a grueling and ill-fated journey to a secluded valley (perhaps like South Park?) to find and slaughter buffalo and to cash in on their hides when they return to Kansas.  This demythologizing, realistic, anti-Western story, although set in majestic purple mountain ranges, depicts a massive slaughter, an orgy of Manifest Destiny adventuring and the dehumanization of the four-man buffalo team.  Andrews comes of age and his transcendentalism is strained .This overall picture of the Colorado Territory is hardly the romantic depiction of the West.

Critics have justly hailed “Butcher’s Crossing” as a masterwork, and one of America’s most realistic Westerns.  It is a must-read for Coloradans, who, like young Will Andrews, are in many ways still in search of themselves.

3.  Denver’s Sandra Dallas is one of Colorado’s noted and gifted novelists. (Editor’s note: She is also a book critic for The Denver Post.)  I recommend “The Diary of Mattie Spenser” (1997).  In this novel, Dallas gives us the fictional Colorado town of Mingo.  Hardship and heartache characterize the lives of Mattie Spenser and her husband. They moved from fertile Iowa farmland to homestead the forlorn and treeless dry country of Eastern Colorado.

Dallas ingeniously imagines the diaries of her pioneering protagonist. They tell of harsh conditions and bitter realities that are a stark contrast to John Denver’s melodies or John Fielder’s photos. Life in early Colorado was a hard-to-imagine struggle — yet Dallas goes a long way in recalling it for us.

Read her “Tallgrass: A Novel” (2007) as well, a fictionalized account of living down the road from Camp Amache, the Japanese internment camp slightly west of Holly, in the early 1940s.

In this Oct. 28, 1947 file photo, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, left, and his wife, Cleo, listen from the audience as the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) announces a contempt citation against Trumbo at a hearing in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo, File)

4.  Dalton Trumbo (who famously became one of the Hollywood 10 ) was born in Montrose, raised in Grand Junction, and then attended the University of Colorado. His first novel, “Eclipse” (1935), is a delightfully fictionalized memoir of growing up in “Shale City,” which bears a striking resemblance, of course, to Grand Junction. His satire was doubtless inspired by the snarky writings of Sinclair Lewis.

This little-remembered work may be the best satirical novel written about a Colorado town, its aspirations and pretensions, and how it was “eclipsed” by forces beyond its control. It mocks Shale City’s boosters and philanthropists, and vividly captures the lives of downtown merchants, newspaper men and local brothel-goers.  Alas, when tough times come to Shale City, one of its heroes is Maria Telsa, the successful local madam.

Trumbo poked great fun at his hometown, and this was for a long while resented. But just as Steinbeck was later hailed as a local hero by Salinas, Calif., Grand Junction, with some exceptions, now celebrates Trumbo.  A whimsical sculpture of him is prominently displayed downtown in front of the Avalon Theatre.

5.  Colorado native Kent Haruf left us a handful of plaintive novels about the ordinary lives of average folks who live in fictional Holt in northeastern Colorado. Haruf  was born in Pueblo and grew up in Cañon City as well as on the Eastern Plains of Colorado.  His dad was a preacher.  Haruf had the ability to describe relationships, human yearnings, and the human condition.  He beautifully captures the quirkiness, restlessness and kindness (and sometimes small-mindedness) that emerge when a community is put under the microscope.

Haruf captures the independence and isolation that are part of both the Colorado landscape and human-scape.  He has justifiably been touted as one of the most talented modern-day Colorado novelists, with a cult following. Some of his best works: “The Tie That Binds” (1984), “Plainsong” (1999), “Eventide” (2014) and “Our Souls at Night” (2015). The Robert Redford-produced Netflix version (2017) of this last novel nicely captures both Haruf’s understated narrative and some wonderful Colorado scenery. Haruf died in Salida in 2014.

6.  Frank Waters, born in Colorado Springs in 1902, published 28 books.  He wrote for Hollywood, worked as a publicist for the Atomic Energy Commission, and created some of the most memorable novels about the southwest.

Of Native American descent on his father’s side, Waters spent almost a year in his youth on a Navajo reservation.  He also spent time at his grandfather’s Cripple Creek gold mine.  His early novels, including “The Dust Within the Rock” (1940) chronicle his growing up in Colorado Springs and attending Colorado College.

Waters is best known for his almost spiritual, semi-mystic novels set in northern New Mexico. Coloradans will enjoy and learn from “People of the Valley” (1941), “The Man Who Killed the Deer” (1942), and “The Woman at Otawi Crossing” (1966/87).  While Waters lived much of his life near Taos, N.M., Coloradans have every right to claim him as one of our own.

7.  A number of Colorado novelists have addressed the treatment of Native Americans and the consequences of Manifest Destiny practices.

Helen Hunt Jackson came to Colorado in the 1870s, seeking a higher elevation for chronic health problems.  She loved to travel the state and throughout the West. Jackson was shocked at how Native Americans were treated in Colorado.  She deplored what happened at the Sand Creek Massacre, and became a self-designated Harriet Beecher Stowe, crusading for the rights of dispossessed Native Americans.  Her novel “Ramona” (1884), set in southern California, has become a classic of consciousness-raising fiction.  She was an unmistakably gifted storyteller and a Coloradan with a conscience.

Margaret Coel, born in Denver and a resident of Boulder, is another gifted writer of stories about the trials and challenges faced by Native Americans.  She has become a New York Times best-selling author of a series of fictional mysteries that capture the culture and the lives of the Arapaho in Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation.  She brings a historian’s training to her  work, and has become one of Colorado’s master novelists.  “Wife of Moon” (2004) is a page-turner that I couldn’t put down.  Coel helps capture our region and those whose ancestors were here in the Colorado Territory long before white people ever heard of the area.

8.  Colorado College professor of English David Mason is a noted poet and essayist.  His “Ludlow:  A Verse Novel” (2007) is a fictionalized history and celebration of those who were victims of one of the bloodiest and most cruel chapters in Colorado’s history: the Ludlow Coal Field Massacre of 1914.

Mason writes with voice and imagination about the immigrant miners who tried in vain to organize for decent treatment.  David had relatives who had lived in nearby Trinidad, and he had grown up hearing the Ludlow story.  He felt compelled to revisit this place and these troubling events, and was inspired to imagine what it was like to be there, helpless and up against the likes of the wealthy Rockefellers and their allies.

Mason won the Colorado Book Award for this novel.  Readers will be struck by his lyrical capturing of both the local landscape and this terrible tragedy in Colorado’s past — and need to remember that Ludlow was merely one of the best-known examples of these clashes.

Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado dons an “Uncle Sam” hat presented to him by a costumed character during a campaign appearance of the Democratic presidential contender, Monday, March 13, 1984 in Mobile, Alabama. (John Duricka, The Associated Press)

9.  Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart  has lived many lives: attorney, campaign manager, legislator, presidential candidate, political theorist and novelist. Hart has authored or co-authored several novels, including (under the pseudonym John Blackthorn) two about Cuba.

Hart makes his home in Kittredge, and his “Durango” (2012) is in part a love letter celebrating the people of that town,  including Duane Smith, his local campaign coordinator, and the leaders of the Southern Ute tribe.  The story is a fictionalized account of the long-drawn-out political negotiations and collaborations involved in the Animas-LaPlata water project, which Hart and his staff were heavily involved in.

Sometimes called the West’s “new gold,” water rights in Colorado are essential to economic development and community prosperity.  The water war Hart describes divides Durango. Neighbors fight over water rights, the environment, justice for the Utes, and their county’s future. Conservatives, ranchers, environmentalists, college professors, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs all become involved — along with the shrewd lawyers for the Utes (who had recently found themselves sitting on top of vast mineral riches).

Hart captures the passion that erupted over this battle.  A popular environmentalist bumper sticker in that region at the time read “Frankly, my dear, I don’t want a Dam!” Hart weaves in a local love story and celebrates a stalwart citizen, Daniel Sheridan, a stoic, civic-minded politician. His elegy to Sheridan, readers may conclude, may tell you a lot about Hart and the citizen-politician he believed himself to be.  His description of how the Utes were mistreated, traditionally a sore subject in the history of Colorado, is especially poignant. This novel won neither  prizes for literary achievement nor wide readership, yet it is an instructive account of prototypical Coloradan community politics.

Peter Heller at his home in Paonia. (John Burcham)

10.  Denver-based author Peter Heller has won acclaim in recent years for several novels. “The Painter” (2014) is set in Paonia, with various trips through the San Luis Valley and down to Santa Fe. The novel is a psychological thriller whose complicated narrator, Jim Stegner, is a commercially successful artist, an avid fly-fisherman and, alas, a murderer. Stegner, a recovering alcoholic who still grieves the loss of a daughter,  has fled glitzy Taos for the isolation of Delta County, Colorado. He spends his time reading poetry, fly-fishing, and painting.  Stegner describes his fishing spots with love and sensitive, lyrical passages. There are flashes, too, of Buddhist philosophy about man’s role in nature.

But when Stegner encounters an unsavory hunter brutalizing a mare, his anger erupts and he bludgeons the man to death.

Throughout the novel, the reader is confronted with an uncomfortable juxtaposition: Stegner’s sensitive appreciation of the Colorado wilderness and his darker, violent side.  Stegner’s Santa Fe  art dealer even takes advantage of this paradox, advertising him as a rogue painter. “Can you say, [Jim], that these allegations of murder have inspired you in some way?” Stegner’s productivity rises along with his notoriety. The linkage between creativity and violence fascinates the art world.

Readers will find shades of Norman Maclean, Edward Abbey, John Nichols, James Dickey and Stephen King in this thriller.  Heller pulls an O’Henry type ending, with a metaphorical conscience (a nephew of his two murder victims) that continues to haunt Stegner. Suddenly, this thriller takes on symbolic overtones, about the beauty of nature, the violence of man and suggestions for how one can reclaim integrity.

11. John Dunning is one of Colorado’s premier novelists.  He came to Denver in his twenties and worked his way up to becoming a police reporter for The Denver Post in the 1970s.  He also was an avid book collector, bookstore owner (on East Colfax), and professional rare book trader.

Denverites should read his fictionalized expose on Denver in the mid-1920s, “Denver” (1980).  Dunning describes the city “as a work of fiction, based on fact.”  Narrator Tom Hastings, a police reporter for The Denver Post , introduces us to the allures of Denver in the Roaring Twenties, but also to the searing prejudice, corruption, and halcyon days of the Ku Klux Klan.  Much of this novel describes ruthless newspaper competition in what was a four-newspaper town. It also recalls the ugly politics and practices of the Klan, which had taken over the statehouse and city hall, and had many members in the judiciary and major businesses.

Dunning earned literary acclaim for several mystery novels, also based in Denver, but focused on book-selling rather than reporting.  His prize-winning “Booked To Die” (1992) might be the best of these.  These mysteries feature Cliff Janeway, a  Denver homicide detective turned book dealer, who tries to solve a murder that has stumped Denver police.

Dunning’s mysteries throb with the life of downtown Denver, with plenty of twists and turns on Colfax, Curtis, Champa, Larimer, and 16th and 17th streets.  Local bars, hotels and early LoDo hangouts are vividly depicted.  Book lovers will savor the talk of rare book collecting and trading, and the bizarre world of book scouts and book dealing — an intriguing  new, unknown world for many of us.

These are stories of urban contemporary Denver, of its hidden book-trading business, and the quirky characters who inhabit this part of the city. Dunning is a master storyteller.  His mysteries are eye-opening and delightful.  They will surely encourage readers to love this cosmopolitan multi-varied side of Denver —  and to want to know more.

A photo of John Dunning, author of “The Sign of the Book.” (AP Photo, Scribner/Rykken Johnson)

12.  Russell Martin is another noted Colorado fiction and non-fiction writer.  A native of Dolores,  he is a writer who brings southwestern Colorado alive.

Martin’s “The Sorrow of Archaeology: A Novel” (2005) is about a young doctor in Cortez,  Sarah MacLeish, who develops multiple sclerosis at age 40, then searches for meaning and acceptance as she navigates a life she had not anticipated. Because of her disease, she sets aside her medical practice and joins her archaeologist husband Henry in his digs in the Mesa Verde area.  She uncovers a small, crippled skeleton of a young Anasazi girl, and is motivated to compare herself with this child from the region’s past.

As her disease progresses, her marriage crumbles, but she is inspired by her grandmother Oma, as well as by her relationship with the Anasazi girl,  to persevere.  Sarah’s links to the past enable her to live.

Martin’s novel is less about archaeology than a lesson about  living life on one’s own terms.  Along the way, we become acquainted with Cortez, its charms and liabilities.  We learn that the summers here are too hot and dry, the growing season too short, and the winter snows paralyzing.  Yet the bucolic creeks, the high peaks and the jutting cliffs that attracted the ancient Pueblo peoples have a sustaining lure for moderns as well.

“Sorrow” is both a difficult and an inspirational read.  It is a story that evokes the wisdom of the past, a story of perseverance, and of a rural Colorado town  that few Coloradans understand.

The Stanley Hotel, known for its architecture, magnificent setting, and famous visitors, may possibly be best known today for its inspirational role in the Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining.” (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

13.  Stephen King’s “The Shining” (1977) may be  the most read novel set in Colorado. Inspired by a King family overnight stay at the fabled Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, “The Shining” has become a cult chiller/thriller, with a Stanley Kubrick film and a 1997 ABC mini-series expanding its audience.

King gives us the quirky, alcoholic, aspiring writer Jack Torrance, his patient wife, Wendy, and  precocious 5-year-old son Danny, as Jack becomes the winter caretaker of the once posh, atmospheric Overlook Hotel, located in remote Sidewinder — many miles northwest of Estes Park, overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park.

In King’s gifted story-telling, the empty Overlook becomes a creepy cavernous and haunted place — replete with ghosts, dead bodies and more.  The adventuresome Danny, who has precognition facilities, explores the hotel and discovers multiple surprises guaranteed to frighten, haunt and thrill the reader.

King, who lived in Boulder for awhile, is a master of suspense and terror.  But a side product here is a portrait of paradoxical Colorado — its majestic beauty, especially at the base of the Rockies, and the cold, harsh, unforgiving isolation that also characterizes life in the mountains.  Most of us live comfortably along the Interstate 25 or I-70 corridors, and don’t experience the isolation and depression of  his snowed-in Overlook Hotel. But we know that the unforgiving cold and isolation of winter in the mountains  is part of the beauty we so admire.

14.  Finally, let’s toast Louis L’Amour, who wrote over 100 novels and 200 short stories. L’Amour came to Colorado in 1926 and found a job in mining for awhile. In later years, he did a lot of writing while a guest at the historic Strater Hotel on Main Avenue in Durango. He owned a 1,000-acre ranch a few miles west of Durango for more than a decade. He died in Los Angeles in 1988.

L’Amour has a huge fan following, from  President Dwight Eisenhower to John Wayne, who starred in L’Amour’s “How the West Was Won.” L’Amour’s books have sold more than 300 million copies.

Like Zane Grey, who wrote “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1912) about Utah, L’Amour loved to share local history and capture a sense of place, and many of his novels are set in Colorado.  “One thing a person has to realize is that in any kind of frontier story, the land itself is an actor.  The land itself is a vital part of the story.”

Critics complain L’Amour’s novels are popcorn for the brain, romance novels for men, and formula romance epics of the West. Still, L’Amour was a gifted storyteller, and he did extensive field research, especially in the Four Corners area near Southwestern Colorado.  In “The Haunted Mesa” (1987), he takes us to this desolate, forbidden territory and describes a mysterious kidnapping that involves paranormal Anasazi rituals and “Third World” practices.

L’Amour chronicles the brave men and women who settled the West. He celebrates the rugged, if sometimes unforgiving, beauty of the land, and the character and dignity of those who survived on it. He was right: Colorado is a land of awe and splendor, of beauty and hardship, of adventure, mystery and romance.

There are many other Colorado novelists worth reading and celebrating, including:

  • Connie Willis is an award-winning sci-fi novelist who lives in Greeley.
  • Mary Hallock Foote wrote about Leadville in its heyday.
  • Kent Nelson is a prize-winning novelist and environmentalist.
  • Colorado Springs novelist  Barbara Nickless has given us two smartly written mystery novels set in the Denver area.
  • Benjamin Whitman, Teague Bohlen, Jeremy Shank, Stephen White, Eleanor Brown, Nick Arvin, and Carlene Brice come highly recommended.
  • David Milofsky, Alexander Blackburn and Steven Hayward are much published and have been  celebrated creative writing teachers.

Know of any others? Let us know.

Tom Cronin teaches at Colorado College. His latest book is “Imagining a Great Republic:  Political Novels and The Idea of America” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). Cronin will do a book signing at Tattered Cover on East Colfax Avenue on Saturday, Feb. 3, at 2 pm.

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