Ok, I admit I was wrong to wait so long to read this! It’s beautiful and savage, and the characters are so wonderfully drawn. On the one hand, I totally agree with McMurtry himself, who said it was overly-romanticized: “Would you want your menfolk to act like that?” And on the other hand, I feel like it’s rather unfortunately realistic, particularly in how those menfolk act.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. We are in Texas, and my “5 or so” is rapidly approaching 10…

I was hesitant to add Lonesome Dove, because it’s another travel book, where it doesn’t all take place in Texas, and I’ve been avoiding those books for this reading challenge. In this case, about half of the book is set in Texas–which, considering the book is over 900 pages long, is not incidental. But once the cattle drive leaves Texas, they cross Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana to found their ranch along the Canadian border in northern Montana. But even after leaving Texas, the Lone Star State is still an integral part of the story–and of the characters.

It’s also set in the same time period as News of the World, but unlike that book, there is no political commentary. The one exception is the occasional comment about the imminent defeat of the Native Americans and the extermination of the buffalo. McMurtry’s book is still full of Indian attacks and he gives no alternate solution; but there is a “vanishing Indian” element–many of the Native Americans we see are either starving or bitterly antagonistic or both, but they are clearly on their way out, and McMurtry and his characters sometimes seem nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of the wars between the Texas Rangers and the Comanches.

The other subtle political commentary the book makes is one of race. I mentioned in The Gates of the Alamo that Joe–Travis’s slave–made note of a difference in attitude toward the color of his skin between San Felipe (near Austin) and San Antonio. Gus and Call treat Deets–the main black character–with respect. I’ve seen some comments about names–complaints that they don’t use his proper name–but we never even learn “Dishwater” Boggett’s real first name, and Newt never does get acknowledged by Call, so the fact that Deets has his first name, Joshua, carved on both Gus’s sign and his grave marker, is a sign of real respect rather than the opposite.

Several of the cowboys use racial slurs against both Deets and Bolivar, the Mexican cook, but several times it’s mentioned that over time the hands become more comfortable with both men–not so comfortable that they stop thinking themselves superior, but enough to acknowledge that the two have their uses and skills. But Gus and Call treat both with the same respect they give others–that is, only the respect they earn based on their abilities and common sense.

And Gus and Call don’t automatically assume that Native Americans are their enemies–a fact which leads to some dire consequences when one of the Indians they meet turns out to be Blue Duck, a Comanche they had fought against for years while they were Texas Rangers; and again when they assume the half-starved young brave will turn aside from his attack at the last moment. But several times the pair trade or even give cattle to Indians in need of food. And many of the worst outlaws they meet are white men.

Maybe it’s meant to be a characteristic of the two men themselves, or maybe it’s meant to be part of their being former Texas Rangers. I’m currently reading Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, whose main character is a black Texas Ranger in 2016. At one point, early in the book, Locke says, “The one thing a Ranger never mentions: race. They were Rangers first–and men, women, white, brown, or black second.” It’s probably more a reflection of the colorblindness theory espoused by conservatives–that we fight racism by refusing to see race. There are any number of articles explaining why this isn’t helpful, from the more academic to the more accessible. On a small, individual scale, in Lonesome Dove, it sort of works. But, as Locke points out, “Darren didn’t understand how the feds, with the help of the Texas Rangers, could investigate an organization called the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and not mention race.” But Gus and Call have no interest in stopping racism–they may not use racial slurs themselves, but they never actually object to those used in front of them–even by their own employees against another one of their employees. They seem to feel it’s up to each person individually to choose to act with respect, or up to the person insulted to defend themselves as and if they choose.

Much more could be said about names in Lonesome Dove–particularly in regards to Call, who rarely calls anyone by their name, and refuses to name Newt as his son. In the edition I read, McMurtry prefaces the book, saying that he always felt one of the strongest themes was that of “unacknowledged paternity.” But it’s a reticence that carries throughout Call’s life and relationships, not only with Newt.

“Can’t you just say my name?” she asked. “Can’t you just say it once?” The question so took him by surprise that it was the one thing of all those she had said that stayed with him through the years. Why was it important that he say her name? “Why, yes,” he said, puzzled. “Your name’s Maggie.” “But you don’t never say it,” she said. “You don’t never call me nothin’. I just wish you’d say it once when you come.” “I don’t know what that would amount to,” he said honestly. Maggie sighed. “I’d just feel happy if you did,” she said. “I’d just feel so happy.”

Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove

The story itself is told with a wry humor that seems synonymous to me with the Old West.

For most of the hours of the day—and most of the months of the year—the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. 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.

Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove

As for Texas, it’s well-drawn, both in terms of the landscape, as above, and the people, both through the narration, the characters, and some well-aimed criticisms.

Pickles Gap … had only sprung up because a fool from north Georgia named Wesley Pickles had gotten himself and his family lost in the mesquites for about ten days. When he finally found a clearing, he wouldn’t leave it, and Pickles Gap came into being, mainly attracting travelers like its founder, which is to say people too weak-willed to be able to negotiate a few hundred miles of mesquite thicket without losing their nerve.

Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove

One aspect that surprised me was the idea that these old Texas cowboys were all basically a bunch of horse thieves, riding across the border and stealing horses and cattle from Mexican ranchers, who would then ride across the border and steal them back. Those caught were often shot or hung. It adds an interesting element to border politics and the history thereof.

Every now and then, about sundown, the Captain and Augustus and Pea and Deets would strap on guns and ride off into that darkness, into Mexico, to return about sunup with thirty or forty horses or perhaps a hundred skinny cattle. It was the way the stock business seemed to work along the border, the Mexican ranchers raiding north while the Texans raided south. Some of the skinny cattle spent their lives being chased back and forth across the Rio Grande.

Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove

Some of the cattle and horses were wild–the distant descendants of horses and cattle brought to the Americas by the Spaniards–but McMurtry is clear that others were stolen back and forth. Call and his crew steal a group of horses from a prominent Mexican border rancher, and discover among them a bunch marked with the brand of a Texan rancher who was looking to buy some horses from them the day before. There is somehow a sense that two wrongs make a right, which I feel probably says a lot about Texas.

I have to note that I loved the inclusion of Po Campo and his wild edibles–including the grasshoppers! I’ve just read Meal by Blue Delliquanti, which is a wonderful graphic novel about a small group of people opening a restaurant with an insect-based menu. The wonderful thing about this book is that they aren’t doing it for the novelty or for environmental or food scarcity reasons–they are doing it to reconnect with strong cultural ties to insects as food. Every part of the world except northwestern Europe has a strong tradition of eating insects–including Mexico, where Po Campo presumably comes from. But I digress…

I also felt there was a strong affinity between Gus and Sheriff Bell from No Country For Old Men–that wry humor and the colorful descriptions. I’ll be reading more from Larry McMurtry eventually, and Cormac McCarthy too.

Overall Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry was a really good addition to our reading challenge for Texas, and a good read in general. I’m sorry I put it off so long. It’ll go down as my favorite for Texas, along with Bluebird, Bluebird which is tied with The Bottoms for East Texas. This is our last review for Texas. We’ll be moving on to Ohio next.

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Books, Setting, South (Western), Southwest


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