A Classic Western: ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry


I never would have called myself a fan of Westerns.  As a bookish woman who loves living in London, I felt that even the premise of epic escapism would not be enough to make me want to spend imaginary time in the Wild West.  It was reading ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones‘ and ‘Close Range: Wyoming Stories‘ earlier this year that made me realise I was missing something.  It is true, I would never actually want to experience the harsh, cruel lives depicted in such novels, but I that didn’t mean I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy hours spent in the company of these fictional cowboys and outlaws as they stoically faced all kinds of adversity.

‘Lonesome Dove’ takes its name from a tired corner of Texas, home to a couple of retired rangers, and their ragged band of employees.   The two pass their time lazing (Augustus) and working (Call) and seem to spend their lives bickering.  A sample cause of contention gives an wonderful indication of the tenor of their days:

There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices – if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched up corrals offices – of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.
His stubborn partner, Captain W. F. Call, maintained that there was excellent shade as close as Pickles Gap, only twelve miles away, but Augustus wouldn’t allow it.  Pickles Gap was if anything a more worthless community than Lonesome Dove…

Personally, I would have happily spent the whole of the close-to-850-page of the novel at Lonesome Dove, along with Gus, Call, the cook Bolivar and the hands Pea Eye, Deets and Newt.  I and the characters however were all shaken out of the heat induced stupor when an old acquaintance rides up with news of opportunities up North.  It seems like no time at all before the men have packed up the ranch and acquired hundreds of cattle and a motley array of sought and unsought human companions to start a monumental trek up to the fertile highlands of Montana.

Friends, lovers and enemies are found and lost as they all take part in their individual quests across America.  Along with those who survive the deadly conditions (the variety and number of deaths is quite staggering) I fell in love with the landscape and scale of the American wilderness.  As its characters make their way across the country, ‘Lonesome Dove’ engages with complex notions of identity, ownership, liberty and power, providing escapism without any sugar coated fantasy.  Whether you’re considered trying out Western fiction, or are simply on the look out for a hearty and satisfying autumn read, I recommend settling down, in shade or sun, with this (officially) Great American Novel.

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7 Responses to A Classic Western: ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry

  1. I wouldn’t normally consider picking up a Western and definitely not a 850 page one! But you have got me thinking 😉

  2. I loved this book, and I was almost sad when it kind of ran out of steam at the end. But then, so did the cattle drive… 🙂 That scene where they had to ride through the thunderstorm because there was no shelter in sight will always stay with me.

  3. O h this is a wonderful book. I came to it after seeing the tv series adaptation – a brilliant one, and probably on DVD. Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Anjelica Huston the major players, but everyone shone

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