My friends and I used to roam all around the neighborhood, making forts out of things. Sometimes we would bring snacks and imagine we were the first people who had ever been there, and that it was now our home. Our forts would be in out-of-the-way places because we would actually go somewhere on our bikes, not just around and around in circles.
We played away from adult supervision, and we were sometimes a little lost or a little frightened, or we got hurt. We figured out how to find our way home, bucked up, and dug the gravel out of our knees when we fell off our bikes.
Children usually love to explore what is to them a wilderness, and enjoy stories of man versus nature in books like Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, where a boy has to survive untracked wilderness in Canada all alone.
In cities and suburbs children are no longer permitted to play away from adult supervision. Every adult they may encounter is assumed to be a predator unless proven otherwise. Play structures in parks are completely static plastic so that no metal, wood, or moving parts can burn, scrape, or pinch anybody. Their time away from schoolwork is largely taken up with organized activities and electronic media.
Concurrently, but for completely different reasons, Western novels published in the past twenty years or so have been few and shelf space for the genre at bookstores has shrunk. People generally grew tired of the quiet lawman squinting into the setting sun. Some of the usual old plotlines, especially the ones about Native Americans and helpless women, were outdrawn at high noon by Sheriff Modern Sensibility and are now pushin’ up daisies.
At heart, though, Westerns were about the frontier, the place just beyond the edge of civilization, where anything could happen.
On the frontier you could be the first non-native people to ever set eyes on those rocks, those trees, and the way the sun sets behind those mountains because you refused to be hemmed in by the soft life in town. You lived by your wits and strength of character. On the frontier you knew that if you ran into trouble, be it blizzard, bear, or bandit, you’d have to take care of the problem yourselves.
Children are natural born frontiersmen.
As Westerns declined, post-apocalyptic novels and movies became popular, and are non-frontier variations on the man versus nature theme. Civilization is gone and a few sorrowful survivors are learning anew how to live without all the comforts. A frontier is different because it’s about optimism. Whatever is on the other side of that ridge is going to be wonderful and new. Post-apocalyptic tales are about destruction and guilt.
Where can children find a frontier in popular culture now? Where and how can they play about any kind of frontier? Hyper-vigilant supervision and the wild frontier are in opposition. Parents seem to feel the times are post-apocalyptic, with the apocalypse being cultural rather than zombies or nuclear attack.
There’s a meme complaining that this generation is born too late to explore Earth and too early to explore space.
One thing they’re doing instead is play a video game called Minecraft. By June of 2015 it had sold 70 million copies. It can be played various ways but in its most basic form it’s about settling a frontier. You come into the world with nothing and have to use your hands to break off some wood, which you use to make some tools to get food and build a shelter to protect yourself from the native fauna that want to kill you. You go on from there, making a better house, setting up a farm, and so forth.
It’s actually pretty fun, but there is nothing real about it.
We won’t, and shouldn’t, flock back to the Western novel in its old form. It got boring. In the Cowboys versus Indians theme most of us side with the Native Americans.
What it had in its favor was that it was more or less real. You can visit Gold Rush towns. You can see cowboys roping cattle. You can read biographies of actual people or even read their own writings. This is something the “final frontier” of space (as Captain Kirk said) just doesn’t have going for it.
I’d like to see a reimagining of the Western novel. There’s a lot of untapped material about what settling the American West was really like that got completely overridden in the eye of the public by entertainment industry-created mythology. There are novels about the Old West that are not “Westerns” that could be used as a launching point, one example being Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. Part of Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men has interesting stuff about what the frontier was like for immigrants coming from the other side of the world (spoiler: unpleasant).
The world also needs a YA series about teenagers in the frontier – something really exciting and well written. Material for younger readers would be a good idea, as long as it doesn’t get preachy. Playing Cowboys and Oppressed Indigenous People Using Words Instead of Guns to Settle Disputes doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.