Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

IMG_8171 Lonesome Dove: A Novel

by Larry McMurtry

I first read this book probably 25 years ago, and for all these years it has stood out in my memory as the best book I’ve ever read.  Of course, over those years, I’ve read many, many other books – including many excellent books, and over time I’ve often wondered if Lonesome Dove would still hold up if I reread it.  Despite how much I remember loving it, I do have a hard time making myself reread books, as there are so many unread books yet to read!  Still, I finally dug out my old paperback copy and delved in.  I was not disappointed.

At 858 pages, it’s too big a story to offer any details – and I don’t think I could do it justice.  In a nutshell, it’s the story of Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, two middle-aged former Texas Rangers, basically retired and living in a “little fart of a town” in post-Civil War south Texas, who impulsively decide to undertake a cattle drive up to the virgin pastures of Montana.  Filled with characters so vivid you could almost hear their voices and smell the dust and sweat of them, it is a sweeping, epic masterpiece story of the wild and unbroken frontier of the American West.

Yeah, it’s a western.  Filled with cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen, heroes and villains, ladies and whores – and plenty of adventure and tragedy.  I was absolutely transported to a different time and place – so much so that I was often dreaming of cattle drives at night.  I was struck by how horrifically hard life was in those times – and yet, in some ways so much simpler than now.  People lived and died as they pleased – there was of course a code of honor, and propriety, but … much of the pettiness and materialism and anxiety over a million things that modern life has brought us was absent.

I cried almost ceaselessly through the last 75 pages or so, and it’s one of those rare books that just leaves me feeling like I’m not going to get over it anytime soon.

To be able to write like this … to imagine a story and put it to paper, a story that truly takes on a life of its own and evokes such emotion – what a gift.  What power!  I am awestruck.

I absolutely love this book, and it remains the best book I’ve ever read.

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

18143918 The Homesman: A Novel

by Glendon Swarthout

Here’s to starting 2015 off with a bang!

I’d never heard of this book or this author, but bought the book on impulse when I was browsing at Barnes & Noble and saw it on the Pages to Movie shelves.  I do like a good western.

Stories abound about American settlers whose grit and determination saw them through hardship and ultimately helped them succeed and achieve their version of the American dream; The Homesman stands out as the story not of winners, but of those broken and shattered by hardship in the American West.

In a lonely stretch of barely settled territory in Nebraska in the 1850s, four women have lost their minds.  All wives of men who sought new lives and, hopefully, prosperity by going west, terrible circumstances have driven these poor souls over the edge, and they can no longer care for themselves or their families; nor can their husbands care for them.  As there is no asylum in the vicinity, the only thing to do is to send these women back to their kinsfolk back east.  Since these women cannot care for themselves, let alone travel by themselves, they must be chaperoned by a local man – or “homesman” – who either volunteers or is chosen by a drawing.  When none of the contenders is willing or able to accompany these four women back east, Mary Bee Cuddy volunteers.

Mary Bee is a former school teacher, and at the ripe old age of 31, considered a spinster.  “Plain as an old tin pail,” Mary Bee nonetheless is strong in body and spirit, fiercely able and independent, and kinder and more compassionate than most.  When she steps up to take on the task of traveling with the four incapacitated women, she knows that she really cannot do it alone.  By chance, she saves the skin of George Briggs, scoundrel, deserter, claim jumper, and general no-good louse, and cuts a deal with him to help her in exchange for saving his life.

So begins their trek across endless prairie, through rain, wind, ice storm, filth, hunger, an encounter with hostile Indians, and all manner of adventure and difficulty.  Mary Bee and George Briggs form a reluctant partnership, and I started predicting a feel-good, happily ever after love story emerging.  Then, the story took a turn that felt like a swift kick in the gut.  That’s all I will say about that – no spoilers.

There were aspects of the story I found unlikely – for instance, the fact that all four women who lost their minds seemed to exhibit identical symptoms: loss of the ability to communicate and cognitive impairment to the point of near catatonia.  I don’t think that’s what actual “insanity” looks like, and even if it does in some cases, the likelihood of four women from the same locale all developing the same exact form of “insanity” seems very improbable.

Nevertheless, I loved this story.  It’s wonderfully written, and the characters and scenes are so vivid, reading it felt like watching it.  It’s a profound picture, too, of how, historically, women have been so completely at the mercy of men, being required to follow husbands all over Kingdom Come and do their bidding, at terrible, tragic cost.

Excellent book.