Best of the West: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, an annual anthology of exceptional short fiction rooted in the western United States, debuted in 1988 and continued publication until 1992. Recognizing that the West remains rewarding territory for literary explorations, James Thomas and D. Seth Horton revived the series in 2009.
Best of the West 2010 brings together established and emerging writers who reinterpret this most vital of literary regions and create, as Kent Meyers puts it in his foreword, "gift[s] the nation needs right now." Editors Horton and Thomas have chosen nineteen stories by writers including Sherman Alexie, Rick Bass, Ron Carlson, Julia Glass, William Kittredge, Kent Nelson, and Deb Olin Unferth. Their subjects vary from a Greek community in Wyoming dealing with a suicide, to a re-creation of Christ's crucifixion in New Mexico, to an unlikely friendship that peaks at a burial ground in Alaska. Best of the West 2010 is the latest indication that the West has become one of the most crucial settings for contemporary American fiction.
- Sherman Alexie
- Rick Bass
- John Blanchard
- Elea Carey
- Ron Carlson
- Natalie Diaz
- Darren Dillman
- Ben Ehrenreich
- Julia Glass
- Dina Guidubaldi
- Ben Kostival
- William Kittredge
- Paul Mihas
- Kent Nelson
- Daniel Orozco
- Kirstin Valdez Quade
- Aurelie Sheehan
- Justin St. Germain
- Deb Olin Unferth
The final editing of the Best of the West books is usually a time of great satisfaction. The difficult choices have been made, the permissions have been gathered, and in the process of editing the individual stories into an anthology, I begin to make new connections that enrich my understanding of both the stories and the manuscript as a whole. This year, however, the work has been more difficult, colored by the recent death of my grandfather, a man who had helped raise me.
After allowing myself time to grieve, I returned to work and noticed for the first time that death was a thread running through a number of the stories in this collection. This year's contributors deal with the issue in terms of both human and animal loss, which is not surprising given Western literature's focus on place and the environment. Sherman Alexie's "Green World" ends with the narrator singing a "death song" for the thousands of birds mutilated by "environmental" windmills, brilliantly updating what it means to be a hunter-gatherer in the twenty-first century. Clem, the protagonist in Julia Glass's "The Price of Silver," shows more emotion for a bear cub in need of surgery than she does for her own sister, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The death of the fish in Rick Bass's "Fish Story" is powerful because it serves as a loosening up of the kind of heavy mimesis that has sometimes characterized Western literature as being too provincial.
One of the region's greatest writers, Mary Austin, wrote in her 1903 classic, The Land of Little Rain, that "No man can be stronger than his destiny," and yet so much of our literature depicts how we struggle against that which awaits all of us. Daniel Orozco's "Only Connect" views a single death from a number of different perspectives, beginning with what appears to be a revision of Tobias Wolff's classic, "Bullet in the Brain." A murder connects the disparate threads of this narrative, but the event is not at the structural hub of the story; rather, we follow Orozco as he slowly leads us to a better understanding of the hopes and fears of those characters that remain alive, a word with which the author has carefully chosen to end his fictional world. John Blanchard's "Cinéma Vérité" can be interpreted hemispherically, not simply because it is set near the border, but because its grotesque treatment of death is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, though here magical realism yields instead to the fantasies of film. The boy in William Kittredge's coming-of-age story "Stone Boat" has lost both his father and his grandfather. To learn how to become a man, a problem manifested in the story as the need to help his uncle keep the steer from scattering, he must carefully study the behavior of other men. The narrative ends with a peculiar, yet effective, turn toward the distant future wherein the boy, now suddenly grown old, is teaching this story to his children while there is still time.
Nowhere is death and its effects on generational change more pronounced in this anthology than with Natalie Diaz's "How to Love a Woman with No Legs," a story about a young woman and the passing of her grandmother. The narrative eschews a standard time line and mirrors the way our minds actually work by jumping around from one memory to the next, creating a parallel to the conflicting and confused emotions of Diaz's protagonist. While the story is successful in its psychological depiction of grief, it more importantly suggests that remembering is not a passive activity. The protagonist of the story must decide what she will remember about her grandmother and, thus, what she must forget. And as every lover of literature intuitively knows to be true, what will be remembered are the stories. It is the grandmother's stories that link the protagonist to Mojave history, and yet when that history becomes too painful for the grandmother to put into words, it is Diaz's narrative, a reclamation project of sorts, that replaces the silence with a haunting metaphor.
Though my focus on death as a trope stems from the loss of my grandfather, there are no doubt numerous other ways to read these stories. I do not, of course, mean to suggest that Western literature deals with death more than other regional literatures, for generalizations about Western literature ought to be made cautiously. However, the stories in this anthology are powerful because of the insightful ways they translate the chaos and confusion of twenty-first-century Western life into meaningful narratives. As the historian Patricia Limerick argued in her 1987 text, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, there are issues facing the contemporary West that are more pressing than continued examination of the old Western myths, by which I mean the masking of nineteenth-century U.S. imperial practices through the creation of a mythical landscape that served as a backdrop to the "heroics" of Anglo men. Now, more than twenty years later, the current goal facing Western writers and critics is no longer to demythologize the West, for historians inspired by Limerick have since performed this task admirably; rather, we must reimagine the region and the complex ways in which it connects with, challenges, and enriches our own lives.
All of the stories that I have discussed conceive of death within a Western cultural milieu, and perhaps this is what a regional study of literature can best offer: the ability to study the challenges of contemporary culture through a multiplicity of ethnic and gendered voices that are intimately connected to the surrounding environment. The Best of the West series brings together both established and emerging writers from varied backgrounds who are engaged in this process of reimagining, noting their similarities while simultaneously attempting to put their differences in conversation with one another.
This year's volume would not have been possible without the assistance of several people. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with Kent Meyers, who has written a brilliant foreword for this collection. He is a Western writer of significant accomplishment, having published a collection of essays, short stories, and three novels, including Twisted Tree, his most recent. An enthusiastic supporter of the series, he has been extremely generous with his time. Cybele Knowles and David Green, this year's associate editors, have done an excellent job in helping me research the more than 250 publications consulted for this volume. I am extremely appreciative of the complimentary subscriptions provided by a number of journals throughout the country. I would also like to acknowledge David Cremean, president of this year's Western Literature Association conference, who kindly allowed several of our contributors a platform through which to read their work. In addition, I couldn't ask for a better editor than Casey Kittrell at the University of Texas Press. His ongoing support means more to me than he knows. Thanks also to James Thomas, my co-editor, for a number of fruitful discussions about the West. Most importantly, I want to express my love and gratitude to my wife, Catherine Chen, who has always encouraged me and my study of the West. I could not have done any of this without you, Cat.
Finally, I'd like to thank this year's nineteen contributors, who have crafted poignant stories that deserve to be read, savored, and remembered.