Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Lonesome_Dove  1985. Pocket Books. Mass Market Paperback. 945 pages.

Recommendation from: Capricious Reader


I have had Lonesome Dove on my to-read list for a couple of years, assured by several bloggers that one didn’t need to be a lover of westerns to love Lonesome Dove. Last December, I bought Lonesome Dove from a public library’s book sale room. For my trip to Istanbul and to Jordan, I didn’t plan on reading much, so I wanted to bring only one book, preferably long, preferably mass market, and preferably an already used and worn copy that I could just toss carelessly into my bag if needed. Lonesome Dove fit the bill. I only read a little of it on my trip, in the end, but I read enough to know I’d made the right choice. I raced through the rest in the couple of weeks following my return to the States.

My prior experience with Larry McMurtry was minimal: I’d seen the movie The Last Picture Show, based on one his books, and co-adapted to a screenplay by him. Last Monday was his 77th birthday, so I figured it was about time that I reviewed this Pulitzer-winning classic.

The story is this: Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, decide to drive a herd of cattle from the small outpost of Lonesome Dove, Texas to the new frontier of Montana. Cowboys, sheriffs, outlaws, tough frontier women and prostitutes populate the sprawling cast of characters.


Lonesome Dove is prefaced by the following quote by someone named T.K. Whipple: “All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” I love this quote, especially the last part. It just completely set me up for McMurtry’s superb storytelling, bringing me fully into his imagination of life in the wild West.

I read Lonesome Dove for hours at a time. Like all good epics, it takes the reader through a range of emotions – it can be very funny but it can also completely devastate you. At one point midway through the novel, several characters are killed suddenly and it really hit me in the gut. They were minor characters but so well-drawn, and I had been looking forward to their continued adventures in the novel. Then suddenly they were all dead and from then on, I realized that no character was safe, that not even their ambitious endeavor of a cattle drive was safe from failure. (I should add this warning: this book does have a few very violent and disturbing scenes.)

It’s an interesting dynamic in Lonesome Dove: on the one hand, the characters will act heroically and seem the stuff of legends at times, but the characters are also people stuck in emotional ruts, not really able to transform themselves for the better. The ending of the book was sad, not because of particular deaths (although those were a factor), but because most of the still-living characters remain frustrated and disappointed with each other in the end. Their victories over life-threatening situations seem hollow because they are all still so dissatisfied. The ride into the sunset is not all it’s cracked up to be.

There are so many things I could discuss about this book, especially with others who have read it. I’d love to compare reactions to certain characters and certain plot turns in the book. Also, while Lonesome Dove felt incredibly authentic in its setting and details of the cattle drive, was anyone else wondering about the lack of railroads mentioned in the book? I believe the book takes place a couple of decades after the Civil War, and the first Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860’s. I love the book so much that this wasn’t a real detraction, but it did seem like an omission.

I’m going to add this book to my Classic Club list. I mainly was keeping the list to books older than myself, but Lonesome Dove is so obviously a classic that I have to break that ‘rule’ and add it.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Farm Lane Books – “The book started off very slowly – it took me about 300 pages to begin to engage with the characters, but once this happened I found them to be some of the most vivid I’ve ever read about.”

Life with Books – “I laughed, I cried, I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Steph Su Reads – “A writer can write as much as he or she wants on the setting, but it is the people in LONESOME DOVE that really make you feel the dust between your teeth, snowblindness in your eyes, wet boots and socks through powerful Midwestern storms.” [This review also makes a good point about the PoC characters].


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5 responses to “Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

  1. Pingback: Joining the Classics Club | A Good Stopping Point

  2. It is interesting to read my comment about this book being so vivid as I can’t remember much about it now. I guess this is due to the complexity of the story and the number of characters – excellent at the time, but didn’t have the long lasting impact of something simpler. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. As a Texan, I could probably be imprisoned for NOT reading this one (yet). I most certainly will, and your fantabulous review helped put it back on my reading map. 🙂

  4. Jackie – I think that I would forget a number of the plot points as well, just because so many things happen and there are so many characters.

    Andi – I hope you do get to reading it – and being a Texan, you’d probably not have to be like me – I had to look at a map to understand the distances between the rivers mentioned during the cattle drive sections of the book.

  5. Pingback: “Our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us.” | AARON HILL’S NOTEBOOK

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