Wormview Review: Lonesome Dove

“If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk — and feisty gentlemen.” (Augustus in Lonesome Dove)

Lonesome Dove
Larry McMurtry
Length: 864 pages
Rating: 5/5 | 9/10

I love Westerns. One of my all-time favorite films is Once Upon a Time in the West and one of my favorite shows is Deadwood. I love period dramas and the Wild West has always drawn my interest. Some of my favorite entertainments are set in Georgian, Edwardian, and Victorian Eras but the American Frontier has always piqued my interest. I think part of the reason I enjoy it so much is because these are tales about my country and the colonization – for better and for worse – of my early ancestors. The hardships that were endured during this period and the real zest for settling down here, against all odds, is truly remarkable. Where rangers had to uphold and maintain morality and settlers trudged across the nation, through months of toil and death before arriving at their destination.

As much as I love this time period, I also recognize the very real and abhorrent conflicts that occurred between clashing groups. The long-standing fights between settlers and Native Americans as well as with slaves and other ostracized immigrant populations is not what I mean when I talk about my love for the American Frontier. Acknowledging the horrific aspects of this time are key in forming an historically accurate picture but for this post, I’m mainly concentrating on my love for the strength these people displayed in settling down with families and building communities. I’m also fascinated by the power dynamics and arguments surrounding the establishment of law and order as well as the day to day struggle to survive and lay down roots. These endeavors contributed to where we are today and serve as remarkable examples of the strength and resolve of the human spirit.

Lonesome Dove is a favorite of mine and I look forward to eventually reading the rest of the series. It was poignant and heart breaking and I fell in love with the characters and their plight. The main story revolves around Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call; retired ex-Texas rangers who run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium in Lonesome Dove, Texas. After a ten-year hiatus, an old compatriot, Jake Spoon, comes to visit them. Jake is on the run after shooting a dentist and tells the crew stories of the beauty and opportunity in Montana. His tales inspire them to take a cattle ride with a fresh crew of all ages and experience levels, along with their top hands: Pea Eye Parker, Joshua Deets, and Newt Dobbs. The dream is to establish the first cattle ranch in Montana. Along the way, many notable characters appear and become involved with the crew as paths cross and trouble abounds.

The journey brings about its own host of realizations as the characters mature and face a barrage of problems including murder, turmoil, love, and the ongoing hardship of the elements. Death, destruction, love, and peace are all reoccurring themes that help the story along and make it easier for readers to understand the harsh reality of the time period and the timeless quality of the characters and their personal revelations.

This book is a shining example of how to make characters memorable and weave different plots together seamlessly. The transition between scenes was so immersive that unlike other novels, it took me a second to redirect my thoughts from one story arc to an alternate cast of characters because I was so invested with each sub-plot. McMurtry also did a great job of handling flashbacks. This is generally tricky because although this book is the first in the series, it takes place toward the end of the main characters’ lives. Despite this difficulty, the flashbacks were always at opportune times, allowing the information to sink in rather than being a cheap tactic to keep the story moving along.

The plot was enriching and the characters were all extremely nuanced and relatable. Not only did this book succeed in winning me over as a reader, but it made deep connections as far as how to live my own life, and the wisdom given by the various characters was sage advice that I still think back on. Here are just a few of my favorites:

“Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.”
“He had known several men who blew their heads off, and he had pondered it much. It seemed to him it was probably because they could not take enough happiness just from the sky and the moon to carry them over the low feelings that came to all men.”
“If you only come face-to-face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day — that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.”
“Live through it,” Call said. “That’s all we can do.”

One of my favorite aspects about this book was its strong female characters. Lorena Wood, Janey, and Clara Allen weren’t flat and predictable, even though one was a whore, the other a young girl in an abusive relationship, and the last a farmer’s wife. Given the time period, it would make sense that the three main women in the book would have stereotypically subjugated roles but McMurtry took it upon himself to make them stars in their own right. The women rose above their bad situations and were richly developed characters. They didn’t feel like characters fulfilling a quota or acting as a plot device but instead they were women that you wanted to be; women to be admired. It’s no wonder they were so coveted by the men in the book. They had a spark and a toughness to them that I rarely see expressed so profoundly and as a woman, it was refreshing to see it done right.

The writing itself was wonderful and as funny as it was heart wrenching. The dialogue was spot on and served the story well by being both gritty and realistic. The violence was horrific but not gratuitously so and I felt it was an important element to the story and the time period. I also loved how the characters talked about sex in a comedic but also more subdued way. It didn’t make me cringe or want to skip over, as I have in other books and instead made me laugh at the way sex was referenced and the honesty of the dialogue throughout.

Lonesome Dove made me laugh aloud as much as it made me cry. With a life as hard as this, no character is safe from death. There were many great characters in this book and as a result, it’s only a matter of time before you’ve grown fond of one only to see that character die. I have so much respect for an author that can describe a character to such an extent that s/he becomes a living, breathing reality. You get hooked on the way a character sees the world, how they navigate what happens to them, and their astute observations along the way. The novel is stark and bold and true. The story and characters mirror the feelings that anyone has as they go through life. The revelations in the book are sad and uplifting, catering to both spectrums that one experiences in life. Anyone can gain something by reading Lonesome Dove and taking the story, especially the beautiful dialogue, to heart.

This is absolutely a book worth reading. It’s relatively long and the characters and story take the usual acclimation period but once you’re drawn in, dear reader, you won’t regret having picked it up.