I have been vaguely intending to read this novel for quite a while but I always ended up prioritizing other books, especially since I didn’t actually already have it in my TBR pile. I’ve noticed a few Cannonballers mention the Bookriot Read Harder Challenge and since I’d already read a few books that fit into the various categories, I thought it might be fun to participate, and it also provided a push to finally pick up Lonesome Dove to meet the Western requirement.
I was, of course, aware of the mini series though I had never seen it, either, and actually knew very little about this novel coming into it. In fact, I was surprised to find that the majority of the novel didn’t even take place in Lonesome Dove, though it is the place where most of the characters have settled in prior to the cattle drive north! I would also warn anyone picking this up not to read the author’s preface – while only three or four pages, it spoiled a major character death (and as it turns out the character didn’t even die in the novel but apparently off page between this novel and the sequel). Since the preface also suggested that a certain event had to happen prior to the death (much like Achilles knows he won’t die until after he kills Hector), I wasn’t necessarily constantly waiting for the death, but knew/thought it was looming and I think this affected how I interacted with the characters.
The main characters of this novel are Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow Call, former captains of the Texas Rangers, though their stories intersect with a large variety of characters, some of whom end up playing larger roles than expected and interacting with each other in surprising ways. By the time the novel starts, in the mid to late 1870’s, Texas has more or less settled down from the wild frontier it once was though Lonesome Dove isn’t exactly much of a city. Running the Hat Creek operation, which sells and rents cattle and horses, with other former rangers Pea and Deets, and the young boy Newt (they say young boy, but he is around 17), is not exactly exciting or challenging for the two former captains but they haven’t had a good enough reason to do anything else. When Jake Spoon, another former ranger, visits, it doesn’t take much to convince Call to organize a cattle drive to Montana. They would be the first herd in the territory, and Gus and Call both have some hope that the north isn’t as settled as Texas, and would be able to provide excitement for former rangers and lawmen like themselves. Not that Gus is nearly as convinced as Call, but he can see a certain amount of appeal and goes along. It also will give him an opportunity to check in on a long lost love who moved to Nebraska after marriage.
Jake is a bit less excited to realize that not only did Call take him seriously, but he expects Jake to come along and help out. A gambler and womanizer, Jake has been wandering from town to town, and is currently on the run from the law due to accidentally shooting a sheriff’s brother in Arkansas. While he ran to Call and Gus for some protection and safety, he prefers that protection in a town with a hotel and soft beds. In fact, as soon as he got to Lonesome Dove, he shacked up with the one prostitute in town, Lorena, a blond Alabama beauty famous in that region simply for not being a Mexican woman, giving her a unique look. Jake, of course, is too weak to truly say no to Call, and he can’t argue with Lorena either when she declares that she is going with him, having decided that Jake is her opportunity to finally get to San Francisco.
As the novel progresses, characters come and go, and some minor characters end up having surprisingly well developed plot lines of their own. Willbarger, a cattle man and former Hat Creek customer, shows up a few times, and is one of the more engaging characters since he is one of the few that can keep up with Gus’s talking. July Johnson, sheriff and brother of Jake’s shooting victim, finds himself forced into pursuit of Jake Spoon by a demanding sister-in-law. July doesn’t blame Jake for the accidental death and is more concerned with his new wife who doesn’t actually seem to like him. It’s actually surprising how many people in this novel can pinpoint Jake as the reason they are in certain situations, even if he sees himself as blameless victim swept up by circumstances (of course, men named Jake are always trouble – I speak from personal experience here :p ). In addition to characters swept up by circumstance, there are a myriad of villains still hanging on and terrorizing the West. While Gus and Call are hard men, they are at least on the side of the law while others thrive on chaos and brutality.
While I was expecting a novel with a bit of melancholy about the final days of the West, it had a much bleaker view point, truly showing the roughness and harshness of the land and the people – there is not much hope in the novel, and so much pointless death. While every once in a while, glimmers of a harsh beauty shine through, the novel shows the violence and sacrifices endured by initial settlers while also showing how some men who helped tame the West simply did not know how to live in the world they created.