• The Good: An epic western that pulls the heartstrings
  • The Bad: Small-worldly
  • The Literary: Down-to-earth Pulitzer prize winner

In the last decades of the Old West, two former Texas Rangers, Captain Woodrow F. Call and Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae, close their Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium in the small Texas border town of Lonesome Dove to drive a herd of cattle to the pristine country of northern Montana.

Lonesome Dove sounds like your typical cowboy story about a cattle drive, but it’s so much more. There are raids into Mexico, skirmishes with outlaws, and run-ins with Indians, plus thunderstorms, dust storms, and even insect storms. The cast of characters is wide and varied, mostly harsh men, gamblers, drunks, and womanizers, who live by their own codes. Many people are murdered, shot, hung, tortured to death — some at the hands of our protagonists. It’s a story about harsh times and harsh people.

But it’s the characters that make this novel shine. Lonesome Dove was the winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and I can easily see why. It’s a heartbreaking tale of two men, as different as can be, and their unlikely friendship. It’s unclear even to the two men how they became friends, but it was so long ago that it’s no longer in question. Captain Call is the stoic and largely silent leader of the Hat Creek Company and the cattle drive. He believes in discipline, duty, and honor. Gus, on the other hand, is loquacious and charismatic, with a fondness for whiskey, cards, whores, and lazy afternoons. But when needed, Gus is as brave and competent in battle as Call. The men would all follow Call to the ends to the earth; but when Call is out, they all turn to Gus.

Other memorable characters include Jake Spoon, who gives Call the idea to make the trip to Montana. Another former ranger, Jake is now on the run from the law, having accidentally killed a dentist in Arkansas. While in Lonesome Dove, Lorena, a beautiful blonde whore with a rough past, decides she wants to go with Jake when he promises to take her to San Francisco. Jake and Lorena both end up on the cattle trail. Many of the men are smitten with Lorena, especially Dishwater “Dish” Boggett, who is ruthlessly teased. Also on the trail is Deets, another former ranger, excellent tracker, and the only black man. And don’t forget the young and impressionable 17-year-old Newt, an orphan essentially raised by the outfit.

I’m not done yet. The brother of the dentist killed by Jake is July Johnson, a sheriff from Fort Smith Arkansas who sets off in pursuit of Jake. July’s wife Elmira is unhappy with her life and leaves to find an old flame named Dee Boot. July’s deputy Roscoe, after learning of Elmira’s departure, tries to track down the sheriff to tell him.

My last character to call out is Clara. Gus agrees to go on this cattle drive when he remembers that his lost love Clara Allen lives in Nebraska. Clara’s reputation precedes her, so when she shows up in the story, the reader is happy to see her as a worthy counterpart to Gus, blunt and brash. Her commentary on Gus and Call’s long relationship nearly serves as the moral compass or in-scene chorus insight.

And yet even with such a long list of characters, I find myself smiling thinking of each of them. All of these characters have depth, if not necessarily likeability. They can be stubborn and feisty and stupid. They’re memorable, and I understand their motivations, which goes a long way.

Back to the primary protagonists, I love that Call and Gus are old men, retired from the Rangers, their legacy still strong in some circles. But the world is changing too. Not everyone cares about their glory days, populations of cities are growing fast, and their rough lifestyle and wild exploits on the frontier are fading fast. These characters are themselves love letters to a dying American landscape.

I think Call may be the first protagonist, but it’s really Gus’s novel. Gus is a colorful raconteur and carries nearly all of the humor. He’s both a pragmatist and a romantic, dispensing wisdom in unlikely places, “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.”

If I had to lodge any complaints, I’d say it’s unlikely how easily the men seem to run into each other over so vast a terrain. The few women in the story, Lorena, Clara, Elmira, even Janey, are there to react to the male characters. While the Indians depicted vary in motive, some violent and cruel, some just hungry and desperate, the only native we know by name is the true antagonist of the story. Blue Duck is a vicious and wild leader of a gang of Indians and white criminals. He remorselessly murders, rapes, and enslaves everyone in his path, and successfully outwits Call and Gus multiple times throughout their careers. But it’s also likely the treatment of women and natives is likely on purpose, there to help McMurtry create this a harsh world quite different from our own.

But mostly I adore this epic western, at times mythical, or violent and dark, or sad and nostalgic. This story touches something deep and true with its characters, and I wonder how well it translates to a non-American audience. I’m angry at the choices some of these characters make; I hope for the best for others; and I’m sad it’s over.

Highly recommended for fans of epic stories!