Monday, May 06, 2024

Larry McMurtry - Lonesome Dove

Some years ago when I first planned a trip to Montana I was gifted Larry McMurtry's book Lonesome Dove as one of the classic works of fiction about the state. Having finally got to Montana and cracking the spine of the huge novel, I learn of course, that the book doesn't really deal with Montana much, apart from, appropriately enough, as a destination.

Instead the book focuses on a fictional, but all too real, cattle drive from Texas just as Montana was being opened up to settlers. Two major characters, Augustus McCrae and Captain W.F. Call lead the drive. They are former Texas rangers, veterans of countless forays against Native Americans and summary executions of horse thieves. Writing it like that reminds one of the sort of people who became heroes in the West. Call and McCrae are old comrades, but it is not really clear if they are friends. Their friendship is perhaps closer to that of soldiers who have fought together, and know each other intimately through shared experiences, but don't necessarily like, or love, the other. Only at the very end does this crystallise out, and by then it is too late.

The cattle drive requires a gang of men to control the cattle, and protect and feed the men. McMurtry's skill is to give each of these multiple characters a decent backstory, and make them all individuals. Some, like the two recent Irish immigrants are tragic, the only black man in the troop - Deets - is a skilled trackers and experienced on the trail, but is once removed from the others by his skin colour. These stories, like that of the Indians in the book, hint at wider social issues in the American West at the time, but the context is really the brief period when the Native American's were all but subdued and the frontier had not quite reached beyond Texas and the Dakota territory. Pivotal moments in the story then deal with the encounters with Native American peoples - sometimes these are extremely violent, and others are tragic. But this novel is not a "cowboy and Indian" trope laden piece of pulp fiction. It is much more nuanced than that.

Indeed, it is perhaps better understood as a sequence of vignettes that take place under the umbrella of a story about a cattle drive. McMurtry doesn't neglect the associated tropes at all - there's a storm, a stampede and a desperate quest for water. But these were, after all, real threats. His skill as an author is to weave in wider tales and story lines that bring everything together - from McCrae and Augustus' back stories, to the characters who make up the cowboys on the drive.

But my real surprise was the strength and depth of the female characters. I wasn't expecting these at all - after all the cattle drives were run by men. But the women are not simply peripheral. McCurtry explores aspects of life for women on the frontier - as sex workers for instance. But he also gives them real character arcs, and their own personalities. These are far more than the romantic interludes to the cowboy's story. They are part of shaping that story. One of the subjects dealt with is the traumatic aftermath of one woman's abduction and violent rape. McMurtry treats this with far more insight and sensitivity than I expected - and avoids a simplistic "happy ending". I was repeatedly struck by how his female characters are rounded - with their own ideas, lives, jobs and demands. Even "bit players" are multidimensional. If McMurtry has one fault it is that he often finishes characters off "off screen" so to speak, ending their story lines - the book is perhaps a little too busy. But for the reader, the novel's ending ties up multiple threads and brings this epic full circle - a most satisfying experience. 

Nonetheless this is an excellent work, a great Western story that does justice to its subject and acknowledging the horrific, violent reality that is American history. As one character notes, America is built on bones.

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