“The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.”
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Western about two former Texas Rangers who attempt to drive a herd of cattle to Montana.
I bought this book when I got it into my head to read all of the novels that have won the Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t have a great deal of experience with western novels, and I hadn’t seen the famous miniseries based on this book. My copy of Lonesome Dove is 945 pages long, and it sat on my shelf unread for a while because its length intimidated me. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to finally give it a shot. I’m glad I did, as it’s now one of my Favorite Books.
This book is a must-read for any fan of westerns. It was a best seller that was adapted into a beloved television miniseries. It is a pillar of the western genre. A fan of westerns that hasn’t read this book would be like a fan of high fantasy not reading Lord of the Rings or a fan of mysteries not reading Sherlock Holmes.
Lonesome Dove subverts the Western myth and traditional pulpy archetypes. If you are familiar with traditional western tropes, you might appreciate this novel’s more realistic interpretation of those tropes. A modern reader will also appreciate the inclusion of minority and female perspectives that are not usually present in more traditional westerns. You don’t have to have any prior knowledge of western genre conventions to enjoy this book, however.
The enjoyment comes from the rich, memorable characters. McMurtry uses a kind of unintrusive, subtle, third person limited point of view that shifts so often in focus on the various characters (sometimes paragraph to paragraph, or even sentence to sentence) that the reader feels like all of the characters are fully fleshed out, real people. And when those people are as interesting and colorful as Gus McCrae, Woodrow Call, Deets, Newt Dobbs, July Johnson, Lorena Wood, Clara, and Jake Spoon, the reader is going to have a great time.
Lonesome Dove is easy to read, but it is long. My copy is 945 pages. Also, the story takes a while to get going because the book takes its time introducing each of the main characters and establishing their relationships. After a couple of hundred pages, though, it’s impossible to put the book down.
Emotionally, the book is pretty rough. I had an emotional reaction three of four times. And by emotional reaction, I mean slammed the book down and mourned in shocked horror for a while. It’s about as bloody as Game of Thrones.
That’s not to say Lonesome Dove is just unrelenting horror and violence (for that, read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian). There are just as many, if not more, moments of joy and laughter as there are of violence and death. And in the course of laughing at the dialogue between Gus and Call, you may even discover that you are witnessing a philosophical debate between an Epicurean and a Stoic about the meaning of life. And if that’s not your cup of tea, you still have gamblers, prostitutes, bad weather, outlaws, bandits, Indians, sheriffs, farmers, wildlife, greenhorns, and cowboys to keep you entertained.
My rating: 5 stars