Sunday, July 21, 2013

Favorite Novels Dept.: The Lonesome Dove Saga

Six month ago in this space I talked about one of my favorite western novels that deserves to get a lot more attention: The Ghost with Blue Eyes, by Robert J. Randisi. Today I am going to discuss another favorite, but this one has had plenty of attention: Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. A Pulitzer prize; two Spur Awards (one for the novel in question, another for the prequel Comanche Moon); five TV miniseries (with a Spur for screenwriter John Wilder); a television series; and a ranking of #2 on WWA’s list of the greatest novels of the 20th century (right behind Shane.)

I know that Lonesome Dove sits at or near the top of the list for a lot of WF members besides me. I also know a lot of WF members who flat-out don’t like it –but I’d say they’re in the minority.
For this article I’m going to talk about, not only the novel, but all four novels in the cycle. Again, some people who love the first one don’t like the others, but I like them all. Taken together they make a complete cycle –I feel the same way about Godfather 3, by the way, I feel it ends the story perfectly.

Speaking of cycles, I believe that McMurtry’s will one day be considered the 20th century equivalent of James Fenimore Cooper’s 19th century cycle, The Leatherstocking Tales –the five novels about Hawkeye, alias Nathaniel Bumppo.

Like Cooper’s books, McMurtry’s were not published in the chronological order in which they should be read (I guess you could throw George Lucas in there, too. Or throw him somewhere.)

Order of publication:

1.      Lonesome Dove- 1985
2.      Streets of Laredo- 1993
3.      Dead Man’s Walk- 1995
4.      Comanche Moon- 1997

Chronological order:
  1. Dead Man's Walk – set in the early 1840s
  2. Comanche Moon – set in the 1850–60s
  3. Lonesome Dove – set in mid-to-late 1870s
  4. Streets of Laredo – set in the early 1890s
I’d like to point out a couple of things I like about McMurtry’s writing:

1.     1.  His use of humor. Some of his characters can be hilarious; others not so much, but can still be in humorous situations. In particular, the author uses humor to draw the reader in and make them fond of the characters, as well as to set them at ease. Then –pow! Something horrible happens to that character, and it impacts you far more than it would’ve had you not grown so fond of them.

2.      2.  The way he plays with history. You might think this is an odd thing for a historian to say –and western fans in general tend to be history buffs, and immediately jump on any anachronisms or historical inaccuracies. McMurtry, who does his historical homework, knows this. You can be reading along in the Lonesome Dove saga and realize “Oh yeah –I recognize this story. Woodrow and Gus are Goodnight and Loving, and Deets is Bose Ikard.” Or you might encounter actual historical figures as supporting characters, such as Judge Roy Bean, or Bigfoot Wallace. And then, once again, you are set at ease: “Oh, I’ve read my history, I know what happens to this character.” And then –pow! Out of the blue, they meet a grisly fate that you never saw coming, and you are totally caught by surprise. And while one part of you may say “Hey! This is historically inaccurate!” another part says: “Wow, that scene really had a lot of dramatic impact.”

3.      3.  His use of longing. All the main characters in Lonesome Dove desperately want something they can never have, and their yearning resonates with the reader.  

The saga deals with some themes that show up in a lot of McMurtry’s work, which I discuss HERE –but as a whole, it tells a very specific story. I’ll use The Godfather saga again, as a comparison: that cycle tells of the rise, and ultimately the very hard fall, of Michael Corleone; that character goes from innocent to diabolical to tragic, as he reaps the whirlwind he has sown.

The Lonesome Dove cycle, too, is ultimately one person’s story. That one person is Texas Ranger Woodrow Call. This may sound odd, as the novel entitled Lonesome Dove –and three-quarters of the saga, altogether –tells of the lifelong friendship of two men, Call and his Ranger partner Augustus “Gus” McCrae. McCrae dies ¾ of the way through, however, and the final book (chronologically) is all about Call. And it is Call’s life that is the complete cycle, as I will explain.

The two partners, who start out as Rangers in their late teens, are complete opposites in almost every way. Gus is a starry-eyed romantic, likes to think of himself as a philosopher (certainly not as a laborer!), is very vain, generally liked by most who know him, is very impulsive, and wears his heart on his sleeve. Woodrow is a pragmatic realist, whose entire focus is always the job at hand and getting it done. He is not comfortable with his own feelings, or with women (Gus is very comfortable with women), and most people –while they respect him –see him as a hardcase, and not the most enjoyable company. The one thing they have in common is an almost superhuman competence at what they do.

Call does have his impulsive streak, though. He has an intense temper –his fury is a sight to behold. In each of the four books, at some point, he is provoked to beat someone nearly to death and explains “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.” And I think you could argue that the turning point in the saga, and in Call’s life, is when he decides –almost on a whim, urged on by the irresponsible Jake Spoon –to abandon everything and drive a herd to Montana to start over.

In many ways, though, Woodrow Call is emotionally crippled. He never tells the woman he loves (maybe) how he feels about her, even though she continually sacrifices for him. He never admits his paternity to the only son he ever has, Newt, even though Newt’s whole life is an effort to get that simple recognition.

Gus chastises him all along the way, providing the voice of conscience and a perfect example of how to live in the moment and truly appreciate life. And while Gus is often a blowhard, he is truly kind and loving –no one has to wonder where they stand with him.

Gus dies when an Indian arrow in his leg causes an infection. He allows the doctor to amputate one leg, but when the gangrene spreads to the other one he chooses to die rather than live a complete cripple. Woodrow views this as a waste, and an expression of Gus’s vanity. Gus views it as a matter of living life the way he wants, or not living it at all. It may well be that, having finally, completely lost the love of his own life, Clara, Gus has no desire to go on.

At one point in that same novel, Call had said “The best thing you can do with death is to ride away from it.” And after fulfilling his lifelong friend’s dying wish to be buried at the Texas site where he had been happiest with Clara, Woodrow does just that. Streets of Laredo picks up many years later. The Montana ranch venture had not worked out, Newt was killed in an accident without ever hearing Woodrow admit he was his father, and Call has become a bounty hunter.

In this final novel (though it was written second), Call is shot by the psychotic young bandit Joey Garza. Call is now the one whose leg is amputated- and in the novel (though this is not clearly explained in the miniseries), he also completely loses the use of one arm. He is taken in by his old corporal, Pea-Eye Parker, and his wife Lorena, and develops a very close relationship with Garza’s sister Teresa, a little blind girl. He spends his time with her, sharpening knives for a meager living, working the stone with his one leg and telling the little girl stories. When old friends –like Charles Goodnight and his cowboys –come by the Parker place and see what the great Woodrow Call has been reduced to, they are overcome by sadness and pity.

And this is how the saga ends.

You may not realize it, but two very important things have happened to Woodrow Call.

1.      1.  When faced with the same circumstances as Gus, he chose to continue living.
2.      2.   In his relationship with little Teresa, Call has finally taken to heart all the lessons his friend Gus spent a lifetime trying to teach him; he has finally learned how to live, by learning how to love. He has been broken physically, but redeemed as a human being. Charlie Goodnight's cowboys –and perhaps the readers –may look upon Woodrow spinning his whetstone and think what a horrible waste it is… but this scene is the first scene in the entire series where Woodrow Call actually seems happy.

That’s what makes Streets of Laredo (like Godfather 3) such an important capstone. We see the ultimate transformation of the protagonist, and the story comes full-circle.

The Lonesome Dove Saga is the story of how Woodrow Call finally learns to be human. His physical crippling has led to his emotional uncrippling.


  1. Excellent breakdown of a top-notch series of novels, Troy. And I agree about McMurtry's use of humor. It's my favorite aspect of his writing.

  2. Even if you have read the series, this breakdown gives something more to the story that when you re-read you will be watching. If you haven't read the series, it will make you want to. Doris

  3. Troy, I'm glad you went on to talk about the other novels in the saga. I read Lonesome Dove and did not like it. The writing was wonderful, the characters were good, but I could not like Woodrow Call for the life of me. And I found myself getting madder at him as the story went on, until it turned into disgust for him. I finished the book, but never read another one of McMurtry's stories. No matter what else he did in his life, the unrequited yearning of Newt to know that Call claimed him as his son overshadowed everything else for me. And it wasn't as if he didn't see it or know what was going on. To me he just wasn't man enough to accept the responsibility and do the right thing. So, to me, he could not be a hero of any kind. I realize this is probably just my own opinion about it, and I can recognize the writing ability of McMurtry, I just don't like this particular story and the way the main character reacted.

    I agree with you about The Godfather. Michael did come full circle and what a story those books told!

    Great post, btw, and great explanations. I enjoyed this!

  4. Good post. Lonesome Dove is my favorite Western book and mini-series, but I was less impressed with the remainder of the series. Lonesome Dove was a buddy story. Even in death, Gus was part of the story as he was dragged back to Texas for burial. For me, Woodrow couldn't carry a story on his own.

  5. Thanks for that analysis, Troy. I need to get down to some reading here. This post has been very helpful.

    As for The Godfather, I think it is one of the greatest stories.

  6. Cheryl, sounds like you have the exact same opinion of Call that Clara did!

  7. LOL Troy--you're probably right. I think a lot of women might tend to think that way. The other thing I thought of was that with Michael Corleone, he started out naively wanting to do the right thing and keep out of the family business. It's more understandable for me to see how he could have gotten sucked in and drawn down into it rather than it is understandable for someone like Call arbitrarily choosing not to acknowledge his own son. I just wanted to kick his butt. But it was an interesting story all the same, or I couldn't have finished it.

  8. And well-written, or it wouldn't have made you so mad ;-)

  9. Oh yeah. No doubt about it! It's rare that I'm that much at odds with a story--I agree the writing was just superb and it was like watching a train wreck about to happen all the way through. I wanted to put it down because I didn't like the main character. But I had to finish it. Even though I was mad and disgusted with his character, I still had to finish the book.

  10. Troy--I, for one, love everything about Lonesome Dove, the miniseries--I never read the novel.
    However, readers either love or can't stand Larry McMurtry. I've tried to read some of his books...but did not succeed.
    But when Bill Whitliff wrote a screenplay for a tv series, to me he wrote the best mini-series ever. Lord, I've watched that series I don't know how many times, even once in the interior of Mexico. Tv down there was pitiful, but at night in our lodge, we watched the series, dubbed in Spanish. I still loved it!
    Bill Whitliff contributed gobs of money to Texas State University here in San Marcos, TX, and in return, the university set up a permanent display in the enormous Alkek Library. The display has some of the actual costumes and many other artifacts from the series, plus the original screenplay that Mr. Whitliff wrote.
    Have you seen it? Please do visit if you ever come to San Marcos. And if you do, you'd better call me!
    P.S. The fact that Call and Woodrow were patterned after Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving makes the story even more intriguing.

  11. Of course, you could look at it that Call refused to acknowledge his own son because he believed that his relationship with Maggie -whose love he also never acknowledged -was a weakness on his part, and that any emotion other than anger was weakness as well. And Newt was a personification of that "weakness," his love for Maggie. You could also argue that the love he refused to acknowledge was his truest self; that he saw himself in Newt; and it was his own true nature he refused to look at. Until near the end of his life. A lot of men in that era, and since, have felt that way about emotion- part of it is the Northern/Western European culture, and part of it is unique to each person's circumstances. It makes you wonder what happened to the child Woodrow that made him put up that wall. I believe that both Gus and Woodrow were cast adrift at a young age, due either to death or intentional abandonment, and each man chose to apporach it differently... one by putting up a wall, and one by having no walls whatsoever. There is no question that Gus is the likeable, even loveable one... but ultimately it is Woodrow who changes, making him the focal character and Gus part of his catalyst. His deep friendship for Gus, for most of his life, was probably the only emotion he was able to express.

  12. I loved Lonesome Dove. What a wonderful story of friendship and loyalty. They recently did a dicumentary on the History Channel about the real story behind the story and I was glued to the TV.
    Like heryl, I was always disappointed by Call's disregard of his son, yet his extreme loyalty to his friend. It just seemed like a slap in the boy's face.

  13. Troy .. wonderful insight into the writing of Larry McMurtry and the incredible saga which is .. Lonesome Dove. His character development is of another level and it is probably the use of humor that makes this a strength of his writing. Whatever it is .. it works!! Another fact that sometimes goes unnoticed is the strong female following (and I do understand your protests, Cheryl) that LD has built over the past 25 years. Again .. I don't know if it is due to the novel or the TV mini-series, but I find most women will overlook Woodrow because they adore Gus so much!! Regardless ~~ it is a story that is well worth reading and watching. And in my opinion, McMurtry is an absolute legend!

  14. I think that Larry McMurtry writes some of the best Indian characters of any non-Indian writer out there. He can present their spirituality and worldview in such a way tha he clearly shows it is different, and often incomprehensible to the white characters, without lampooning them. I'm thinking of Famous Shoes in particular.

  15. .. that is another valid point, Troy. Famous Shoes is an outstanding character, Kickapoo, if my memory hasn't failed me. The man was a walking or running Atlas Map. The story of Buffalo Hump and Blue Duck added much to the saga, as the entire Comanche tribe did as well. And, I believe, it was Kicking Wolf, who was the greatest of all horse thieves, and kept the Rangers busy chasing him on so many different occasions. Great additional insight, Troy.

  16. Fabulous explanation. I have the DVD and have not watched it yet, but no matter. I had heard the story a bit and figured I needed to read more in the genre first to appreciate it. Thanks for exploring the series, in order!

  17. Paul, there are a lot of women who read westerns in general--not just Larry McMurtry stuff. It's pretty amazing at the following of women of western writers. I started out writing western historical romance, and still do write some of that, but found myself reading more and more "regular" westerns as time went by and not so many WHRs as before. I read both, and write both, and there are a ton of other women out there who do, too. It's truly a readership that needs to be cultivated and looked at as far as sales!

  18. Paul, forgot to say, I did adore Gus. But it only served to heighten the awareness of what a good person he was compared to Call that it made me dislike Call all the more. LOL

  19. Troy, I know--you make some very valid points about Call's personality quirks and lack of emotion. I love studying the characters like this. I just didn't like him because it hurt Newt so much, over and over again. But that's probably because I am a mom and to me it just made me mad to see him do that. LOL

  20. Reading the comments is nearly as good an education as reading Troy's post. Not good at analyzing stories at all. Need to take some classes from Prof. Troy Smith.

  21. Cheryl ~~ a tip of the hat to you and to all the ladies who enjoy reading (and writing about) Westerns. It only serves to make this a much stronger genre and an old-cowboy-wannabe like myself truly appreciates your contributions. ~~ On another topic concerning LD, I have found it to be one of the most quoted movies of all time and I find myself "sparing" with good friends to see who can come up with the most "LD quotes" during a conversation. Now that I have let my breakfast get cold ~~ "It'll take a hacksaw to cut those eggs" ~~ PC

  22. I love Lonesome Dove immensely. I thought the other three books were really good, but not up to the caliber of Lonesome Dove.
    I love the movie. Robert Duvall's portrayal of Gus is incredible. Diane Lane did a superb Laurena Wood. Tommy Lee Jones played Call Awesomely.