Lonesome Dove can be real intimidating when you first pick it up to read. The paperback version logs in at 945 pages. To me, it is worth reading every single one of those pages.
In our culture, both on the silver screen and small screen, cowboys have been glamorized and made to seem larger-than-life and heroic. McMurtry brings them completely back down to earth in this novel. We see all of the work – the dirt, the pain, the danger, the anguish – that comes with this job. The good guys don’t always win, things don’t always go as planned, and there is no smiling, happy ending.
McMurtry’s characters are human in every sense of the word. They are courageous and stand up for what they believe in; they are heroes are struck down when trying to do the right thing; they are honorable and at the same time can bend that viewpoint a bit when it suits them. In other words, they are like many of the people we see every day in our own lives, all these years later.
The story begins in the town of Lonesome Dove sitting just off the Mexican border in a dry, dusty area of Texas. Two former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae have retired here and run the Hat Creek Cattle Company. Life is fairly boring with the main excitement being the occasional raids by Mexicans on their cattle, which they respond to by raiding the Mexican cattle back. Gus makes a crack that some of the cattle spend their whole lives just going back and forth over the riverbed.
One day an old buddy by the name of Jake Spoon wanders into town and fills Call’s head with thoughts of Montana. In short order, there is a cattle drive going on from the most southern part of this country just about up to the Canadian border.
Jake manages to end up with the only prostitute in Lonesome Dove accompanying him as they head north. He is also on the run from the law for killing a man.
I think the character of Jake was one that intrigued me the most. In so many ways he is such a weak man and ends up being in the wrong place at the wrong time just because of that. He knows what’s right, but doesn’t have the courage to put himself on the line standing up for that. Too often, he takes the easy way out. He is a tragic figure we can sympathize with, and at the same time shake our heads because we are disappointed.
We learn early on that Call is the father to Newt, a young boy who was (supposedly) orphaned when his mother died years before and was taken in by the Hat Creek Company. Newt looks up to these men with idolatry. No one has ever told him who his father is, and he theorizes that it’s Jake. Call won’t admit to it not out of shame of Newt but that it showed he was weak enough at one time to love a woman.
Call is a strong, stoic man who isn’t very likable. Gus is his opposite in his easy-going, friendly, outspoken nature. Their friendship works because they are so different and because Gus is the one person in the world who isn’t intimidated by Call. Both men subscribe to a code of honor and would gladly put their lives on the line for each other and the men who work for them.
The chronicles of the trip from southern Texas to Montana are so involved that they rope you in. There are so many different stories going on at the same time. Characters wander in and out and McMurtry manages to weave them into a wonderful tapestry that we end up caring about. We want to know if they will all make it to Montana. We care about each character and what is happening to them, from Lorena – the prostitute, to July Johnson the newlywed sheriff hunting down the man who murdered his town’s dentist, to Clara Allen, a woman running a ranch in the middle of Nebraska with two young daughters. By the end, we feel we have a stake in the journey. We have invested our time reading the book and we are rooting for the outcome.
There is no easy happiness here in this novel. It is a brutal, hard look at the American west. But it is a spectacular read!
I had watched the mini-series before reading this book and became very intrigued. I love the book even more. Don’t let the size intimidate you. It is well worth taking in the 945 pages!
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