Sunday, July 07, 2024

Fiction Review: Lonesome Dove

Ever since I started my YouTube channel in 2021 and heard about the annual June on the Range reading event there, I've heard people raving about how amazing the novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is. I remember all the hype over the TV mini-series in the 80's (though I didn't watch it), and lots of friends with similar reading tastes said the novel was excellent. But I'm not a huge fan of westerns generally, so I put off reading it. I decided this would be the year, and I read it in June for both June on the Range and my own Big Book Summer Challenge. Wow. Why did I wait? This beautifully written, moving novel blew me away and left me sobbing (three separate times!) and often laughing out loud. It was everything I'd heard and more.

In 1873, Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers, living a quiet life on the Texas/Mexico border along the Rio Grande, in the tiny, dusty town of Lonesome Dove. A couple of their ex-Ranger fellows, Pea Eye and a Black man named Deets, along with a teen boy named Newt make up the rest of their Hat Creek Cattle Company, which doesn't get a whole lot of business there in the desolate, tiny town. Both Call, often just called Captain, and Pea Eye are both reticent men, but Gus talks enough for the whole outfit. He can--and often does--talk about absolutely nothing for hours. The town mostly consists of a few meager farms and ranches, a general store, and a saloon, featuring a beautiful whore named Lorena. The few travelers that come to Lonesome Dove often come just for Lorena, though there is also a lot of drinking and card playing in the saloon, as a man named Lippy plays the piano. Into this quiet life on the edge of nowhere, another ex-Ranger named Jake stops by the Hat Creek outfit to visit his old friends. He regales them with tales of his recent trip to Montana, which is still a vast wilderness. He emphasizes that it is excellent cattle country (as opposed to Lonesome Dove, where grass for grazing is nearly non-existent), and Call is unusually moved from their typical routine to suggest a cattle drive all the way to Montana. First, they round up thousands of cattle from Mexico and a few more men, including a couple of experienced cowhands, two lost Irishmen they rescued from Mexico, and some teen boys from town. The expanded though ragtag Hat Creek outfit sets off, leaving behind their quiet existence, for the unknown wilderness ahead and untold dangers on the way, from Indians, horse thieves, and nature. Along the way, they meet many other people, whose paths they may cross for just a day or for much longer, following Call's unusual and emphatic need to drive their new herd of cattle all the way to the unknown territory of Montana.

This novel surprised me so many times and in so many ways. Yes, it's a western adventure with plenty of action. But McMurtry has also created fully-drawn, three-dimensional characters that soon feel like old friends. I expected an all-male cast in this cowboy novel, but he's included many fascinating, well-developed female characters, too. The writing is beautiful, but the novel is also plot-driven, with so many unexpected twists and turns that I never for a moment got bored through its gripping 850 pages. I was also surprised by the emotional depth and intensity of this story that had me sobbing, hard, three different times and also often laughing out loud (the first, wonderful instance of this is in chapter 8, about the origins and details of the sign for the Hat Creek outfit that Gus created). Here's another fun moment, as two people ride into camp:

 "The most surprising thing was that [she] was wearing pants. So far as [Gus] could remember, he had never seen a woman in pants, and he considered himself a man of experience. Call had his back turned and hadn't seen them, but some of the cowboys had. The sight of a woman in pants scared them so bad they didn't know where to put their eyes. Most of them began to concentrate heavily on the beans in their plate. Dish Boggett turned white as a sheet, got up without a word to anybody, got his night horse and started for the herd, which was strung out up the valley."

There is violence and tragedy, yes, but also friendship, love, honor, and commitment. It's an epic story that kept me engrossed for a full month and then feeling like it ended too soon. I will definitely be reading its sequel, The Streets of Laredo (and there are also two prequels).

NOTE: Do NOT read the Preface, written by the author, as it contains spoilers--of this book and the sequel.

858 pages, Simon & Schuster

Phoenix Books, Inc (audio)

This book fits in the following 2024 Reading Challenges:


Mount TBR Challenge

Monthly Motif - "Comedy Club" - while not strictly a comedy, it did make me laugh a lot!

Diversity Challenge

Big Book Summer Challenge


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  1. It would never occur to me to read this book and I, too, didn't see the movie. But reading your review and those of others who have read it recently has me reconsidering (maybe). I am so glad you enjoyed it.

    1. I felt that way until everyone started raving about it! I think the June on the Range event really motivated me because so many others had read and recommended LD.