I recently finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Western, Lonesome Dove. And believe it or not: I’d never actually read a Western before! Furthermore, I’m a slow enough reader that I generally shy away from books that are around a thousand pages, like this one. But the book was recommended to me back in January by my friend Josiah (a lifelong Texan). And when I came down with COVID this week, it created the perfect opportunity to burrow into a big book with a big story. And honestly, Lonesome Dove might end up being one of my favorite books of the decade!
It has all the classic Western elements: Cowboys and Indians… Saloons and Gunfighting… Rattlesnakes and Horse-Thieves… But somehow, it doesn’t feel like a trope or a cliché! The characters have depth and complexity: serious flaws, but also endearing qualities. The descriptions of the setting are grand and glorious, but also multilayered: full of beauty and danger. The plot is powerful and compelling. So, it makes sense to me that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. It’s got chops. It’s a good book.
The story starts in a small town called Lonesome Dove, Texas, just north of the Rio Grande. Two old Texas Rangers, Augustus (“Gus”) McRae and Woodrow F. Call are basically retired from their paramilitary careers securing the southern border. Their Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium is enough to occupy them plus a couple of trusted ranch hands… but barely. Through a series of events, they decide to rustle up a herd of 2,600 cattle and drive them north to Montana, just as it’s opening up for settlement.
It’s an epic adventure through an epic landscape. But the part of the story that was the most moving and compelling for me was the relationship between Call and McRae.
The old Texas Rangers are heroic in many of the classic Western ways. They can tame the toughest stallions. They can outfight the toughest enemies in the toughest circumstances. And they have a strong sense of justice that seems to be desperately needed in the “Wild, Wild West.” At the same time, they also carry intense shame and regret. They annoy each other. They are deeply flawed in unique ways. Yet, they still find a way forward.
I don’t know how to sum up a thousand pages in a short book review, here, without spoiling any of the story. I just feel an intense sense of accomplishment and gratitude at the conclusion of my reading of Lonesome Dove. It seems to be one of those stories that echoes strongly in our culture, without even realizing that it’s the original “shout” at the head of the “canyon.” I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a good summer read. Or a read of any sort.