Lonesome Dove. A mammoth, epic tale of the West and what happens to two Texas Rangers after they’ve hung up their badges. You’ve probably heard of McMurtry and his most famous story. But if you’re like me, you might not have actually ever read it. Until now.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m from Texas. It’s a big part of my identity and I believe it’s contributed to my affinity for stories of Manifest Destiny, big open skies, and the longing for more. Not to mention that I can relate to the dry, 100+ degree weather. But I have not actually read many traditional Westerns. So in an effort to expand my horizons, I picked up the 800 page classic.
Because of its status as a classic, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the themes and plot developments. There are a lot of fascinating and amazing elements to this story (hence the Pulitzer) and I could never do them justice in one blog post. I recommend Googling scholarly articles for more on that.
Instead, I want to talk about how we as readers approach this story.
Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call were Texas Rangers at the height of Texas settlement. They spend years punishing outlaws, chasing bad guys, and trying to create order. We hear a lot about their adventures although when we meet them they’ve retired from their Ranger lives and have become ranchers. Gus is happy with the arraignment but Call is restless and conflicted. So when one of their old buddies tells them about the uncharted paradise of Montana, Call decides they should go.
Gus isn’t thrilled, but he agrees to go along. So they gather their horses, cattle, ranch hands, and head North for what promises to be a grueling trip.
And it is grueling. They lose more than a few men, a woman traveling with them is kidnapped, they have to run and steal and fight. Through it all we get to know their crew well, very well, and even though it was seriously like 800 pages, I still felt like I wanted more. More back story, more details of their futures, more justice for the ones who didn’t get a future. Don’t get me started on Newt.
We also meet a lot of other interesting characters along the way; men and women who live rough lives in the landscape of a barely organized frontier. It is a rich, full cast of characters.
As for the plot, it is a tangled, messy depiction of life. Each character wrestles with serious topics and has to make life altering decisions, while they’re driving cattle across dangerous land. At times it felt so slow, I thought we’d never make it. Other times, important scenes ripped by so quickly, I had to reread the section. Which leads me to what I mentioned earlier, the reader’s approach.
We always get there eventually!
So, the setting. McMurtry paints a detailed and vivid picture of life on the range. I have read more about pigs eating snakes, men hobbling horses, being thirsty and covered in dirt in this book then ever before. And why? I believe it’s because McMurtry wanted us to feel like we are actually on our own horse, right between Deets and Dish as we make our way across the plains.
And in my opinion, he did. It was such an immersive story, finishing the book felt like finishing a marathon. Now, McMurty isn’t the only person who’s writing and structure mimics the content. It also mirrors real life. In Call Me By Your Name, Elio’s longing for Oliver takes up like, 40% of the book. And then the countdown when Oliver is leaving speeds up once they’re together.
It makes us feel like we’re in the story, right? It mimics It’s great.
But what about when an author’s reflection of real life doesn’t quite land?
For me, that was Normal People. Obviously, there are many people who really love that book. And I’m glad for Rooney that she’s been able to turn it into a whole franchise. But I couldn’t stand that story. I didn’t particularly like either character and what fondness I did have withered under the scorch of their terrible decision making. Which they did over and over.
Which felt like the point, right? I’ve heard so many people praise the story for it’s portrayal of real people with real life messy-ness. So why do I love that approach in some stories, and hate it in others? Personal preference is the answer, but what shaped that preference? What made me reject some interpretations and embrace others?
It’s not all about happy endings, both McMurtry and Aciman saw to that, so what is it?
I have no clue. And there might never be an answer.
In fact, this whole post is semi useless ramblings of a crazy woman. But I need to get some use out of my English degree and for me, it’s almost never enough to just read a book. I need to pull every little thing apart and examine them closely.
If you’ve come this far in my examination, I applaud you. And I’ll encourage you to read Lonesome Dove or another McMurtry and then ask yourself these questions. What real life elements do you dislike in literature? Is there a pattern?
I’m going back to the drawing board to see if I can spot patterns in my own habits. And then I’m going to eat a bunch of potato chips. Until next time!