Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Lonesome Dove Series – a review of four books

 The Lonesome Dove Series of four books by Larry McMurtry can best be described as Shakespearean tragedy westerns.  They attempt to follow certain broad historical events dealing with a 60 year period in Texas but play loose with events and dates to make a story. Humour revolves mainly around whiskey and whores. While the books describe the bleak landscapes in some detail, they develop the characters to perfection. Each character protagonist or antagonist has weaknesses that eventually result in their deaths.  By the end of the series almost everyone is dead. None die of old age but Bolivar the cook, the rest end tragically in one way or another. Hamlet, Macbeth or Othello would have understood.

Dead Man’s Walk introduces August McCrea and Woodrow Call as young men in their late teens. Gus is lazy and prefers to spend his time drinking and womanizing while Call is the exact opposite, careful and conscientious. Both are capable leaders and fighters. The book is placed after the 1836 War of Texas Independence but prior to the 1846-1848 war between America and Mexico. They join a loose organization which becomes in time the Texas Rangers and set out from Austin to find a road direct to El Paso. The expedition is poorly organized and incompetently led. Hunted by Comanche and Apache, battling storms and thirst, the survivors are forced to turn back after crossing the Pecos.  We are introduced to Buffalo Hump, Comanche war chief.

On their return to Austin, Gus meets Clara, the love of his life, but promptly sets out with Call on another hair brained, badly organized and worse led, expedition to capture Santa Fe from the Mexicans. The normal route between San Antonio and Santa Fe was way down through Mexico, avoiding Comancheria completely. They decide to go straight across the high plains, fighting thirst and Buffalo Hump all the way.  Most turn back and are never heard of again.  The survivors are met by the Mexican army which is under orders to march them to El Paso where they will be dealt with.  Most of the way is barren waterless desert called the Dead Man’s Walk or Camino del Muerto. Twenty Texans make it to El Paso. They draw lots; ten are shot and ten including Gus and Cal are freed to make their way home.

Comanche Moon picks up about 10 or 12 years later.  Gus and Call, both in their late 20s or early 30s, have been made Captains of the Texas Rangers. The Rangers are tasked with preventing the terrible Comanche raids against the settlers slowly but inexorably pushing their way west. They are mainly unsuccessful against their nemesis, Buffalo Hump, who with the best horse thief in Texas, Kicking Wolf, often leave them afoot. While they are away chasing Comanches, Buffalo Hump mounts a massive raid on Austen in 1854, killing many townspeople including Clara’s folks.

Gus had no luck with Clara Forsythe who loves him dearly but recognizes she cannot hold him and marries Bob Allen, a horse trader from Nebraska, leaving Austen five days before the raid. Call takes up with a young whore named Maggie who falls in love with him and bears his child.  Call will not admit to being the father and breaks off all relationship with her. Maggie dies of TB leaving young Newt to be raised by the Rangers. We are introduced to Pea Eye Parker, Jake Spoon and Deets, as well as Blue Duck the son of Buffalo Hump and a Mexican captive, who is a renegade from birth.

Lonesome Dove (written first in the series) begins about twenty years later.  Call and Gus, now on the wrong side of 50, are retired to the tiny community of Lonesome Dove on the bank of the Rio Grande.  They own Hat Creek, a small run down ranch, and make their living stealing horses and cattle from Mexico. Call does most of the work while Gus drinks most of the whiskey. Newt, now in his late teens, lives with them as do Pea Eye Parker, Deet and Bolivar, the cook who is avoiding his wife in Mexico. Dish Boggett, a wandering cowhand, signs on to the ranch so he can stay close to Lorena or Lorie, a beautiful young whore abandoned by her pimp in Lonesome Dove. Dish loves her but Laurie does not return his love, falling in love with the smooth talking Jake Spoon who has returned after a 10 year absence. Jake’s stories Montana grasslands intrigue Call who decides to be the first to drive cattle to Montana establish a ranch. Gus goes along with the idea.

They steal 2500 head of cattle and about 150 horses from Mexico (their owner has died), hire several more riders and set out. Their epic journey is the real story. If you only read one book, read this one. It is the best of the lot.  As it was written first and Comanche Moon last, the stories do not mesh smoothly. There are also a few glaring historical inaccuracies. That bothers me but may not bother you.

Streets of Laredo set some 20 years later, finds Call as an aging bounty hunter living in a small cabin on Charlie Goodnight’s ranch. In Lonesome Dove he took Gus’s body back from Montana to bury him in “Clara’s orchard, near Austen, the only place he was ever happy.  Newt, whom Call never acknowledges as his son, is left in charge of the ranch but two years later is killed when his horse falls on him. Call disbands the ranch, half of which Gus left to Lorie. The riders disperse, with Pea Eye Parker going to work for Clara Allen near Ogallala. Lorie, who stayed with Clara when the herd went through Nebraska, marries Pea Eye and they go farming in the Texas Panhandle not far from the Red River. Call takes Pea Eye with him when he has a contract. Cal has one last contract, to catch Joe Garza, a Mexican bandit who is a highly successful train robber and sharp shooting killer.

Pea Eye finally refuses to go with him because he has a wife, five kids and a farm. He changes his mind and follows Call.  Lorie sends her kids to Clara and goes after him to warn him a psychopathic renegade killer Mox Mox, has reappeared after 13 years. Cal manages to kill Mox Mox and his small band but he is losing his abilities.  His fingers are swollen and stiff with arthritis. He walks into a trap and takes three bullets from Joe Garza. He is rescued by Lorie on her way to Pea Eye. Pea Eye gets lead into Garza but not enough to stop him and Garza is killed by his own people in his own village after he kills his mother and tries to kill his brother who is mentally challenged and his sister who is blind.

Pea Eye and Lorie take Call home along with Garza’s brother and sister.  Clara Allen has the children waiting at the railway station when they arrive. Call has lost an arm and a leg and carrying the third bullet in his chest. He slowly learns to adapt but is simply putting in time. A few years later, Clara is killed by a horse, meeting the same fate as her husband many years before. Pea Eye and Lorie add more kids to the family and expand the house. Fade to black.

For a very detailed map of Texas topography see this link:


  1. I've heard the books are good. And I've heard the miniseries is outstanding as well.

    1. The Lonesome Dove Miniseries is superb. The other books have miniseries as well but I have not watched them. The books are good and I will likely read a couple of them again.

    2. Have always loved the Lonesome Dove series and have read them more than once.
      the Ol'Buzzard

  2. Good God, I'm depressed after only reading the synopses. I'm glad you enjoyed the books, but Old West stories give me the willies. Have I mentioned that I really, really LIKE living in a time where we have sanitation, anesthetic, and antibiotics...?


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