A love of history starts with love of a good story. There are no more stirring tales to be found than those of frontier partisans in action through the ages. In no particular order, I offer you the finest in frontier fiction…
• No Survivors by Will Henry: Everyone I know who has read this tale of Confederate-Colonel-gone-renegade-with-the-Sioux John Clayton has thought it must be based on a real memoir — such is Will Henry’s talent for creating verisimilitude.
He also triumphed with I, Tom Horn, his re-imagined autobiography of the notorious Apache Wars scout turned cattle detective.
• Something of Value by Robert Ruark: This epic tale of the Mau Mau rebellion in British Kenya in the 1950s whetted my appetite for African lore and opened my eyes to the international and near-contemporary nature of “frontier” conditions.
• Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard: The legendary pulp writer of the 1920s and ’30s is best known for his fantasy work, but he was an avid student of frontier history, especially that of his native Texas. In this tale, he combined the two, producing what many Howard aficionados consider his finest work.
Conan of Cimmeria in this story is the quintessential frontier scout. If you are only familiar with Conan through movies and comics, go straight to Howard’s original tales and accept no substitutes. “Beyond the Black River” is a great place to start.
• Men of Men by Wilbur Smith: Smith knows how to write a potboiler (and in my world, the term is NOT pejorative). This tale of the diamond strike in Kimberley, South Africa, and the conquest of Rhodesia is a rip-roaring introduction to the South African frontier.
• Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: McCarthy’s black-hearted tale of scalphunters in the Southwest just after the Mexican War is widely regarded as a literary masterpiece. It is also obsessively researched, down to the most obscure details. A must-read depiction of the darkest stamp of frontier partisan warfare.
• In the Rogue Blood by James Carlos Blake: Covers much of the same ground as McCarthy’s dark masterpiece. Blake is more accessible and plot-oriented, without sacrificing the poetic punch.
• Café on the Nile and The Devil’s Oasis by Bartle Bull: Highly entertaining adventure novels featuring safari guide Anton Rider. In “Café,” Ryder and his clients are caught up in Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia. In “Oasis,” Rider’s skills in the outback are tapped for service with British special forces in the North African campaign of World War II.
• Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher: The basis for “Jeremiah Johnson,” a beautifully written proto-anarchist saga of a trapper’s one-man war with the Crow Nation.
• The Religion by Tim Willocks: A novel about the Great Siege of Malta, 1565? Well, yeah. Malta was a frontier outpost in 1565, the bleeding edge of the knife where the Islamic Ottoman Empire met Christendom.
The hero, Mattias Tannhauser, is Richard Slotkins’ “man who knows Indians,” only in this case he knows the Turk. The best historical adventure novel of the past decade — at least.
There’s more, but that oughta keep ye for a few nights by the hearthside.