Lonesome Dove

Book online Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

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Lonesome Dove



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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.This is an epic novel, and the quotation by T.K. Whipple which I provided above is indeed an appropriate epigraph. It's interesting that Larry McMurty originally devised it as a screenplay in 1972 - but the project never went through. Luckily for us the man did not scrape the idea, and decided to turn it into a book. He finally published the complete novel in 1985 to great acclaim, which culminated in it being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1986.The titulary Lonesome Dove is a small town at the very end of south Texas, near the Mexican border. It's 1876 - just eleven years after the end of the Civil War, and a short while since the Mexican-American war which ended up with the U.S. annexation of what is now New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Arizona and Wyoming. The U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845 provoked the war - Mexico still considered Texas as a part of its territory, despite Texas revolving against the Mexican government and becoming an indepentend republic in 1836. As a result of the war, Mexico lost about half of its national territory, and the U.S. gained an enormous amount of land which now forms the American Southwest, with the Rio Grande becoming the national border. This was a great loss for Mexico, considering the discovery of silver in Nevada and the fabulous gold mines of California with its gold rush, along with the rich agricultural potential of the region. The war also had a tremendous psychological effects on both nations - the U.S. confirmed its vision as a continental empire, stretching from coast to coast, a land of rich and plenty. For Mexico, the war was a tragedy - as the country has just won its independence from Spain in 1821 the indignity of having its capital occupied and losing half of its territory to the enemy was a deep blow, from which it never really recovered.Big as it may be, Lonesome Dove is not a political novel. The Mexican-American War and the Civil War are relevant to both the setting and timeframe - but never overtake it. The town of Lonesome Dove is populated with Texas Rangers, who used to guard the border against a possible Mexican invasion - and are not getting bored, since the invasion is question is less and less likely to happen. One of the characters mentions that Lincoln freed Africans, not Americans - and that's about it for the politics of Lonesome Dove.Set in a border town, Lonesome Dove seems to be more focused on the shrinking border between civilization and wilderness. The novel opens with the image of two pigs eating a rattlesnake. They are holding it together, by the neck and the tail, "having a fine tug-of-war with it, its rattling days were over". This image - of two domesticated animals swallowing a wild one - is an accurate representation of man's progress in the West: the western expansion of civilization, resulting in expulsion and extermination of natives to pave the way for the settlers - wilderness and nature literally being swallowed by civilization.Lonesome Dove is also a road novel - which I would consider a particularly American branch of fiction. The sheer physical size of the country is irresistible for people who dream of a long journey of exploration and discovery, both of the country and themselves; novels such as On the Road are a testament to that. However, the journey is not always motivated by such desires - sometimes it is a forced journey of desperation and escape, such as the one taken by Oklahomans to California in 1930's after the Dust Bowl, which John Steinbeck chronicled in The Grapes of Wrath. After the Civil War, Texas was almost overflowing with cattle for which there was no local market - but there was a demand all the way up in the northern region in the country. Cowboys herded the cattle and went on cattle drives to Kansas, from where their cattle was shipped to Chicago stockyards via rail. In Lonesome Dove the cattle trail stretches from the border in southern Texas all the way to another border in northern Montana - a truly epic journey, considering the fact that a large part of the trail would have to run through what was still then Indian Territory, with many hostile inhabitants. Indians would not be the only hostile inhabitans as the deserts were full of bandits waiting for easy prey, and the country itself provided plenty of natural obstacles - scorching heat and thunderous storms, deceitful rivers and swarms of insects, the impenetrable darkness of the night.(the expansion of the railorad system eliminated the need for such long cattle drives - notice that none of the characters see any railroad track in the whole book).McMurty manages to walk on the delicate line which divides the romantic from the ridiculous: The West is full of dirt and scorching sun, and the work unpleasant and pays low; the civilization is still in its infancy, its cities and megacities are a vision of the distant future. Still, there is a dreamlike aura hovering around it, pointing our attention to the beautiful bonds and friendship formed between the cowboys and the beauty of their life on horseback on the vast, empty plains, and the bravery of the people who came to settle them, conquering hard conditions which welcomed them with their own hard labor. Sometimes it must have felt like they were the only people on earth, with the vast emptiness of the great plains stretching around them in all directions. But more and more people came, and eventually the land had to give in - as much as they could make it.The novel excels at characterization, bringing to life some of the most memorable characters in Western fiction. Of particular interest are two former Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Call Wood: One is loves a good talk and moving around, and the other is taciturn and still. Augustus is the owner of the two pigs who eat the snake in the opening scene. When Gus is preparing a sign which will advertise their horse trade - which he has no problem stealing from Mexico on night-runs, despite hanging people for the same crime in America - he makes sure to emphasize that the pigs are not for rent.Then, as another afterthought, he had added, “We Don’t Rent Pigs,” which occasioned yet another argument with Call.“Why, they’ll think we’re crazy here when they see that,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind would want to rent a pig. What would you do with a pig once you rented it?”“Why, there’s plenty of useful tasks pigs can do,” Augustus said.The rest of the cast is also beautifully drawn. The novel is not solely focused on the characters of Gus or Call, and features an ensemble cast, where even the minor characters are given an unique voice and characters; it's easy to forget that they are constructions made of words, as they sound real, act real, and all but jump off the page.I found myself thinking about the meaning of the title - (view spoiler)[McMurty says that he thought of Newt as being the Lonesome Dove: an innocent, young and lonesome man, never recognized by his father. But I think that basically all characters are unable to form a relationship - Call refuses to acknowledge that Newt is his son because and give him his name, and is "afraid to admit that he's human"; Lorena is a dreamer, captured by the vision of San Francisco, refusing to pay attention to the feelings of men in the town of Lonesome Dove; Gus is unable to settle down anywhere and have a meaningful relationship with anyone; he was rejected by Clara because of that. Clara is unable to have a son as they all died early; her husband also dies, leaving her alone on the prairie with their two daughters. Even the Mexicans, Bolivar and Po Campo are alone - Bolivar is separated from his family in Mexico and has a strained - putting it mildly -relationship with them. Po Campo is a loner, who keeps mostly to himself. It is perhaps the reason why these characters form a bond, and reach out bravely for the unexplored frontier, hoping for it to be the land of happiness, where their dreams would be realized. (hide spoiler)]

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