Larry McMurtry’s Rollicking American West

I picked Lonesome Dove, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize, for a book club meeting once.  However, as a group we decided not to read it because of its daunting 945 pages.  But because I had always wanted to read it, I did so anyway.  I devoured its pages during a trip my husband and I took to Mexico while laying next to a pool and sipping limonadas.  In between sightseeing, swimming, para sailing, eating, and shopping, I delved into the world of the Old American West, where Texas Rangers Augustus (Gus) McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call can handle any harrowing situation.

My favorite character in the book is Gus.  He’s old, he’s witty, and he’s lovable.  Despite his age, he always has a girl to love, and at this point in his life, a prostitute named Lorena falls madly in love with him.  He saves her when she is kidnapped by Indian warrior Blue Duck; her current boyfriend, Jake Spoon, doesn’t even bother to go after her.  Gus is her hero, and she is the damsel in distress.

Gus also sticks to his principles, even when it’s difficult.  When he catches his handsome, but aimless friend Jake with a band of robbers and murders, the law says they must be hanged for their crimes.  Gus hangs the bandits, including his buddy Jake, despite hesitation to be lenient because of their history together as Texas Rangers.

Another reason to love Gus is his tenderness with Newt, the illegitimate and unclaimed son of Captain Woodrow Call.  Gus includes him in their cattle-wrangling adventure north, and eventually tells Newt the secret of his patrimony.  Gus teaches Newt how to be a man.  Essentially, he acts as the boy’s father, even though he has no legal responsibility to do so.

Another unforgettable character is Josh Deets, a former slave and first-rate tracker.  He keeps the group on course and away from danger as they travel from Texas to Montana.  Pea Eye Parker is also noteworthy, especially once he is forced to walk alone and naked back to their company to fetch help for a wounded Gus.  He makes a spiritual connection with the dead Deets, whom Pea Eye sees leading him back to the rest of the group through his delirium.  Deets’s role as tracker and guide does not end with his untimely death.

The main focus of the novel is on the former Texas Rangers McCrae and Call and their trek north, but a side story that eventually coincides with theirs is that of Roscoe Brown, a hapless sheriff from Arkansas who has no experience and zero bravery, but eventually proves himself in the line of fire.  Clara Allen is also a prominent part of the plot.  She and Gus once had a relationship, but she chose to settle down with another man.  Her wisdom and strength on the prairie of Nebraska serve the cattle company well.

There are so many carefully drawn characters, which are what gives this novel the color and depth of a piece worthy of the Pulitzer.  I am glad to have read through the 945 pages; it was a delight, not a chore.  In fact, my enthusiasm for the book was such that my husband and I promptly watched the miniseries on Netflix as soon as we returned home from our trip.  I had seen parts of it in my childhood, but I didn’t remember much.  Robert Duvall captured Gus perfectly, and as longtime fan of Tommy Lee Jones, especially his role in The Fugitive, I enjoyed his stoic performance of Captain Call.

All of this fictional reading about the West improved my historical knowledge.  Once, when I was younger, I read books without having a clear sense of time or place as I sped through the plot.  As an older and more careful reader, I try to understand the context of the novel and the time and place surrounding its happenings.  So, when reading Lonesome Dove I knew that the Texas Rangers were the law in Texas, not yet a state, from the 1830s to 1840s.  The story of Lonesome Dove takes place in 1876, and the Mexican-American War occurred from 1846-1848, after the United States claimed Texas as its own.  (My January ancestors, whom I wrote about here, were there during this time claiming their stake in that land of the West.)

My knowledge consequently led to a moment of trivial glory on one of our sightseeing tours in Mexico.  We rode in a large tour van with a small group of visitors to the small, artsy town of Todos Santos.  The tour guide talked a lot about the history of Mexico and its languages and people.  He asked if anybody knew when the Mexican-American War occurred.  Well, of course I did!

I had the opportunity to show off another funny bit of knowledge I gained from Lonesome Dove during a family history class at my church.  The teacher was showing the class a divorce settlement for her ancestors.  As she read the list of animals, she came to “shoat” and did not know what that was.  Neither did anybody else.  One man, who loves to make jokes, said, “It’s a cross between a sheep and a goat!”  Everybody laughed, and then I had a chance to speak.  I informed them that a shoat was actually a pig.  They looked at me in astonishment, and one said, “How did you know that, Emily?”  I replied, “Lonesome Dove!”  We all laughed.  But this funny story goes to show that reading really is the key to education.

I recommend Lonesome Dove to anybody.  You don’t need to be a fan of western novels, Larry McMurtry, or history.  This masterpiece is an entertaining tale of heroics and hardships, something we can all appreciate and learn from through the perspective of the Old West.

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8 thoughts on “Larry McMurtry’s Rollicking American West

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  1. I’ve always imagined Lonesome Dove to be the American West’s equivalent of Gone with the Wind, the type of novel that perfectly captures a time and place in history. Or, if you’re not a Gone with the Wind fan, the type of novel that completely romanticizes a time and place in history with no regard for the unpleasant aspects of it.

    Once on an overseas trip, I was discussing the American Civil war with an Argentine friend. He asked me if I considered myself a Yankee or a Southerner. I told him, “Neither. I’m a Westerner.” I think many of us who grew up in this incredible landscape feel a deep nostalgia and connection with novels like Lonesome Dove. In fact, many of these classics are being revived on the big screen (think True Grit, 3:10 to Yuma, even No Country for Old Men). There’s just something about hard-working, rugged men, tough women, and the settlement of harsh terrain that resonates with the American national character.

    I’m definitely putting this one on my reading list, and adding the miniseries to my Netflix queue!

    1. I am a Gone with the Wind fan. I think Lonesome dove both captures the time and romanticizes it. I like your point about being a “Westerner.” I feel that too. Another great American novel that captures the settling of the West and the connection to the land is Willa Cather’s My Antonia. She uses the plow in the sunset as a symbol of the West. Let me know what you think of the book and the miniseries when you’re done!

  2. Fantastic book! The sequel, Streets of Laredo, and the prequels, Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, are great reads as well. These stories include much more history of the American west.

    Dead Man’s Walk details Gus and Call as young Texas Rangers and introduces the romance of Clara and Gus. Comanche Moon is more of their time in the Texas Rangers chasing a Comanche horse thief and more on the love triangle of Gus, Clara, and Bob Allen. There is also more about the conception of Newt (THE Lonesome Dove).

    The Streets of Laredo was hard for me to pick up because I knew that there was no Gus (easily the most likable character) but I have to give it to McMurtry – he can write. This book is focused on the bonds of family and gives closure to the series. It’s mostly about Call (now a bounty-hunter) chasing a Mexican bandit and through certain tragic events how he is finally able to tear down layers of his stubbornness and learn to connect with people.

    McMurtry is an American treasure. He has also written classics like Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, Horseman-Pass By (film Hud), Texasville as well as a ton of other greats I haven’t read yet. Many of his books have been adapted to film and T.V.

    1. I need to read those other books! We did try to watch Dead Man’s Walk with David Arquette, but it was so stupid I couldn’t finish watching it. I bet the books are much better! And, I like your idea about Newt being THE Lonesome Dove. I never thought of that, but you are spot on, as always!

  3. Hi all,
    We just wanted to let everone know about the new Larry McMurtry Documentary “Books: A Documentary”. This past August, Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dave, The Last Picture Show and Brokeback Mountain, sold over 300,000 antiquarian books from his legendary Booked Up bookshop at auction over two days. This film is the story of those Books. You can watch the trailer here – http://kck.st/13pQtEO

    Thanks for taking the time to check us out,

    Mathew

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