Western Movies

On the Trail with Gus and Call

A celebration of Lonesome Dove the novel and of the miniseries inspired by McMurtry’s masterpiece.

gus_call_lonsome-dove_on-the-set

When Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was published in 1985, virtually every review included the term “epic.” “Deeply affecting” was a close second in the flow of praise for what one critic called “the Great Cowboy Novel.”

Its critical success was capped with the Pulitzer Prize and its mass popularity with a television miniseries graced by a rare combination of fine acting and high ratings. By then, Lonesome Dove was being called a Western classic. And it is, although not for reasons that would gladden every fan of Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray.

Lonesome Dove is most impressive as a literary balancing act. Its characters are comfortably familiar sorts who suddenly do the unexpected—and who always speak with the most wonderfully original blather. The story moves languidly for long stretches, then suddenly ignites in gun battles, stampedes, and gut cuttings to satisfy the most demanding action fan. Above all, for history students, McMurtry keeps Lonesome Dove centered between myth and anti-myth.

The story begins in the late 1870s in Lonesome Dove, a sunbaked speck of a town on the Texas-Mexico border. The turmoil during and immediately after the Civil War has subsided, and with it the need for aging former Texas Ranger captains like the book’s two primary figures, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae. With Pea Eye, Deets, Lippy, and others in the Hat Creek Cattle Company, they pass time in and around the town’s one saloon, the Dry Bean, where the prostitute Lorena conducts her business. Enter the handsome Jake Spoon, another ex-Ranger, who persuades the restless Call to drive a herd of three thousand cattle northward twelve hundred miles to the grassy valley of Montana’s Yellowstone River, nearly to the Canadian border. The long drive and its adventures consume most of Lonesome Dove.

For readers after historical accuracy, Lonesome Dove is mostly accurate, at least in the term’s narrowest sense. There are a few anachronisms and startling omissions. The Indians who send Gus to his deathbed with a rotting leg are presumably Blackfeet, who in fact were mostly in Canada by this time or starving on what remains today one of America’s bleakest reservations. It’s hard to imagine that the Hat Creek outfit sees no farmers; in western Kansas alone, sixteen counties were created during the 1870s, with more land broken to the plow than would have fit into Connecticut and Delaware combined. And where are the railroads? Every historical development in the novel’s background—cattle trailing and ranching, buffalo hunting, and the Indian wars—was either spun off directly or facilitated by the first transcontinentals built during the previous decade....

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