If you are a fan of the western genre, chances are you have heard of Lonesome Dove. Likewise, if you follow award winning books, you may have seen it on a list for its 1985 Spur Award or its 1986 Pulitzer Prize. Some of you may have even watched the CBS miniseries from 1989 starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. Lonesome Dove is not an obscure novel and it has received a great deal of praise, but coming in at a whopping 843 pages it can be daunting to those of us more used to a book in the 200-250 page range. If you, like me, have been avoiding this read because you are scared of the time it will take to finish, I am here to tell you that this book is worth the effort.
In broad strokes, the story of Lonesome Dove follows a cattle drive from southern Texas up to Montana. A group of retired Texas Rangers, led by the taciturn Captain Woodrow Call have settled down in the Texas border town of Lonesome Dove to start a ranch. When their old friend Jake Spoon arrives in town telling stories of his travels, the mention of the untouched cattle paradise of Montana feeds Call's hunger for adventure. Thanks to his need to recapture some of the excitement of his younger years, the whole company embarks on a 1,200 mile cattle drive through unknown obstacles and danger.
The motivations of the characters in this novel may seem cliche from plot summaries, but the way McMurtry captures the emotional need of each individual is visceral and real. Much of the realism comes from that emphasis on the needs that drive a person to act. This comes in the form of Call's need to prove that he can still lead men, Jake's need to feel valued, and Gus's need to be there for the people he cares about. The perspective of the story shifts from chapter to chapter, often using that glimpse into a character's emotions to reveal subtle context for their actions.
While the realistic characters are at the heart of why this is such an enjoyable novel, it is also worth noting that in Lonesome Dove there are no "safe" characters. By that I mean that at any point in the story, a character can be injured or killed; sometimes without warning. This may be a shocking decision, especially to a modern audience used to endless sequels where there may be peril, but the main cast is never truly in danger. In this case, the danger to every member of the outfit is established early on, and serves to enhance the emotional impact of the story.
Touching on themes of love, friendship, aging, and the majestic brutality of nature, Lonesome Dove's complex and interweaving plot has established it as a classic novel of the American west. Its realistic characters and their relationships are the true heart of the story, and the main appeal to me. If you have been wanting a way into the western genre, or just a well written character driven novel, I highly recommend you give it a try.
Uva uvam vivendo varia fit