Lonesome Dove: Expectation vs. Reality

I just read that great American Western novel, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. While I don’t know that writing a review of such a novel is helpful (or even possible), I thought it might be fun to share my thoughts, especially relating to how it held up to my expectations. So, here we go!

Expectation: This book is long.

Reality: It’s even longer than I thought, AND it’s slow!

Seriously, this book clocks in at about 850 pages. And I’ve never read a slower book in my life. I set a pace of 50 pages a day for myself, and some days I was up late just trying to finish my 50 pages. The book is dense and the pace is slow. It takes them a good 150 pages just to get started on the cattle drive, and about 500 pages to get out of the state of Texas. I God! Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t bored, it’s just LONG.

Expectation: It’s going to be SUPER racist. And sexist.

Reality: Yes, and no.

Lonesome Dove takes place in a period of American history that was super racist. The men in the novel don’t talk to the main black character because you just … didn’t. The n-word is used a few times. They talk like all Mexicans are horse thieves. The time period was very sexist too, and the men treat women like objects instead of human beings.

However, the author, McMurtry, was aware of the racist and sexist ideals of the time and (mostly) wrote in subtle opposition towards them. For example, while the cowboys are often depicted as one-dimensional and more than a bit stupid, the POCs are often depicted as being thoughtful and having much more complicated motives. The women are both the strongest and most complex characters in the novel. And the death of the primary black character, Deets, hits the main characters harder than any other death in the novel. Call spends a full day digging his grave and carving a grave marker that, while simple, shows how much he valued him. More, in fact, than he seems to value his own son.

There’s a major exception, which is the Native Americans. I’ve rarely read anything more stereotyped and offensive. I guess half the point of the genre is Cowboys vs. Indians… Still, by the 1980s McMurtry could have and should have done better.

Expectation: It’s exciting with lots of gunfights.

Reality: Cattle driving is boring.

There are a couple of battles in this book (three, I think), but spread over 850 pages that’s not a lot of action. Most of the book is just people walking. And talking. And thinking. Turns out cattle driving isn’t that exciting. Except, apparently, crossing rivers, because evidently cowboys didn’t swim very well. Who knew?

Expectation: Outstanding writing

Reality: Yuuuuuuup

If you can get past the unacceptable stereotypes of the Native Americans, the writing in this book is really something. There’s a surprising amount of nuance and subtlety for a book about a bunch of guys who literally can’t think of anything to talk about but whores. I was surprised by the depth of the characters, mostly because their development is such a long and arduous process. The longer I read the more I enjoyed this book.

Expectation: Everyone is going to be dead at the end.

Reality: Well, not everyone.

In fact the book’s ending was so random that it took me a few minutes to become fully convinced I wasn’t missing a couple of pages. Maybe the end is supposed to be funny? I wasn’t laughing. I would have preferred if they’d all been killed in a Montana winter, honestly. A good tragedy is hard to come by.

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