I’ve been a big fan of Western movies for a while, but I’ve only recently started reading Western fiction. This Pulitzer prize-winning epic adventure is considered by many to be one of, if not the best novel in the genre. Now that I’ve finished it, it would be hard to argue with that.“Yesterday's gone on down the river and you can't get it back.”
The book follows aging best friends Woodrow Call and Augustus “Gus” McCrae, who were once famous Texas Rangers that fought Indians on the frontier, but for the last 15 years, have retired and now operate a small livery in the sleepy Texas border town of Lonesome Dove. They’ve been living a simple life with their buddies and the other residents of the town, including the sad and emotionally distant Lorena, Lonesome Dove’s only whore. But when the duo’s friend, the gambling ladies’ man Jake Spoon, returns after many years, describing the beautiful, untouched grassland in the largely unsettled Montana territory, Call is inspired to go on one last adventure and, with Gus, be the first to settle in Montana and become successful cattlemen in their old age. Gus is initially not interested in the idea, content with them spending their old age hangin’ out in the sun along the Rio Grande, instead of risking their scalps on the open range. But he agrees because of the prospect of reconnecting with his lost love Clara, who he knows has settled in Nebraska, which would be on the way. So after stealing 3,000 heads of cattle from a Mexican bandit and hiring a ragtag team of cowboys, they set off on an epic cattle drive across the country from Texas to Montana. On the way, they will make new friends, lose old ones, encounter great dangers and witness great beauty.
I’m always nervous when I begin reading long novels, hoping that I’m not wasting my time. It was no different when starting Lonesome Dove. At first, it felt like it was taking way too long for them to even get started on the cattle drive. Instead the first part of the book seems like it's mostly focused on the characters sitting around Lonesome Dove. But this novel is a sneaky little bugger. There came a moment (not even sure when it happened) when I realized that while it seemed like nothing was happening, the book was slowly sucking me in until I was completely engulfed in the tale. The characters are so detailed, so real, that I couldn't help but to be completely invested in their lives and what would happen next. And not just the main characters, but the minor roles (even the animals like the Hell Bitch, the two blue pigs, and the mean bull) were incredibly well-drawn. The length of the novel was imperative to this kind of character development. And not only did the length help with getting to know the characters, but it also made me feel like I was part of the cattle drive, living through not only the dangers, but through the slow tedium of it all. And because the trip is tedious, the joy I felt when the cowboys finally make it to certain landmarks in the trip was really something!
The tone and atmosphere is another thing that sucked me in. The story has a truly romantic mood, like a great adventure story should have, reading like a long love letter to the dying Old West. The theme of "longing" runs all throughout the novel, from Call wanting to develop a thriving, meaningful business before it's too late, to Lorena wanting a place to call home and someone to connect with, to Dish Bogget, who's undying love for Lorena is so large it's tragic, to Gus, stuck between his love for two women and his love for adventure, and to young Newt (the heart of the story), who not only wants to see more of the world outside of Lonesome Dove and be accepted as a man and cowboy, but longs for a father figure.
Lonesome Dove is truly something special. It has something for everyone and is possibly the essential western story, a tale that encompasses everything that the genre stands for.
" 'It ain't dying I'm talking about, it's living,' Augustus said. 'I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.' "