So, you have to understand that Lonesome Dove has been in the background of my life for a long time. Not the story, exactly, just the existence of the book. They filmed the Return to Lonesome Dove miniseries very close from my grandfather’s ranch, on what was the remains of my great-uncle’s ranch before it was turned into 20 acre housing lots. (If there is more apt metaphor for Lonesome Dove, I don’t what it would be). So the existence of the novel has been kind of hanging around my life since 1993. And I think that a young, foolish, me wrote the story off as yet another spaghetti western kind of thing and so despite enjoying the western genre, I never actually picked the book up. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that it had won the Pulitzer until I started reading it. Anyway, one of my longtime friends posted about how this was one of her favorite books, and how she named one of her sons after Gus. It was this post that finally made me decide to pick it up and read it. I mean, I like westerns right? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this book. I have been meandering my way, slowly, through this book for almost two months now. I wanted to take my time to savor and really enjoy the world and the characters. In fact, I almost thought about further delaying finishing it, because I was just sad to see it end. If you haven’t read this book, you really should do so. It’s this beautiful, sparse, harsh, dive into the the American West and the people who inhabited it.
The plot of the book is driven by the characters that travel across its pages; the events loosely tied to a cattle drive from southern Texas to northern Montana in the late 1870s. It’s really the characters that drive the novel though, and you feel the life and deaths of each character breathe across the pages. It’s hard to talk much about what happens without spoiling the events, because how each event shapes the characters is important. I want so desperately to talk about the characters, but also this is a novel to experience. The deaths should come with the gut punches that they are, so that we mourn with the characters.
While there aren’t many women in the book, I do think McMurtry does right by them. And despite not having a lot of women, I think it’s a fairly feminist work. The rage that Clara spills at the end of the book, to two different men, is every woman asking the men around her to stop wallowing in toxic masculinity and let themselves feel things.
One brief warning. One of the women in the book, Lorena, is captured, brutally raped, and beaten. It’s rough, but I think the book handles it well. However, should that kind of thing trigger you, you should be aware that it happens so that you can prepare for it.
The one think I don’t feel really prepared to judge is how well the book handles its characters of color. On the one hand, I appreciate that McMurtry acknowledges that there were more than just white men who civilized the west. Joshua Deets, my second favorite character (after Clara) is a black man. There are a few Mexican characters sprinkled here and there. The Native Americans are both a looming threat, and the sad, angry remnants of a dying people. I think the various races are all handled respectfully, but I also acknowledge my own privilege and thus I’m open to other interpretations of the characterizations. The book doesn’t address the problem of the western expansion directly, and I can see how some might find that troublesome. It didn’t bother me because you could see the problems that it created reflected in every character.
You should absolutely read this novel. Especially if you’re a fan of American literature. It’s beautiful, and is an example of what I love about westerns. The way that westerns delve into bleak harshness of life, tempered by the beauty of the landscape and the powerful will of the human spirit. However, after reading this book, I’m kind of afraid to approach the rest of McMurtry’s works. How can they compare to this one? I’m not really sure that I want to return to these characters, because I want to imagine a happy ending for the ones who survived this book and not the tragic deaths that I’m sure McMurtry wrote for them, but on the other hand I do want to spend more time with them.