Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

We’re all familiar with stories centering on people pulling off herculean tasks. Sometimes people just have need to do something that ends up seeming staggering to others, likely even themselves if they aren’t simply foolhardy. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is a little bit different though, and that intrigues me. The early massive cattle drive from Texas to Montana when no one had done such a thing was certainly herculean…but it does seem a bit unusual in the fact that they didn’t really have any need to do it.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Arthur Golden)

Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call are aging men, widely famous for years of service as Texas Rangers. An old Ranger buddy shows up with stories about Montana and Call decides to rustle a massive herd of cattle from Mexico and head on up there, despite having more than enough money and all the adventures he really needed to ever have. Gus sees the pointlessness in it, but goes along anyway. Despite his carping, he wouldn’t miss it. Really, it’s more about facing the sunset in a way that is how they have proudly lived their lives than any actual need to accomplish the massive endeavor.

It was that they had roved too long, Augustus concluded, when his mind turned to such matters. They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted. They had been in Lonesome Dove nearly ten years, and yet what little property they had acquired was so worthless that neither of them would have felt bad about just saddling up and riding off from it.

Indeed, it seemed to Augustus that that was what both of them had always expected would happen. They were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call. From time to time they talked of going west of the Pecos, perhaps rangering out there; but so far only the rare settler had cared to challenge the Apache, so there was no need for Rangers.

Augustus had not expected that Call would be satisfied just to rustle Mexican cattle forever, but neither had he expected him to suddenly decide to strike out for Montana. Yet it was obvious the idea had taken hold of the man.

“I tell you what, Call,” Augustus said. “You and Deets and Pea go on up there to Montany and build a nice snug cabin with a good fireplace and at least one bed, so it’ll be waiting when I get there. Then clear out the last of the Cheyenne and the Blackfeet and any Sioux that look rambunctious. When you’ve done that, me and Jake and Newt will gather up a herd and meet you on Powder River.”

Call looked almost amused.

But don’t get me wrong. That isn’t the whole story, and it isn’t just about Gus and Call. There’s love, people trying to love, people trying to survive and make a living, people trying to deal with their pasts, and people being cruel to each other. There’s a lot to Lonesome Dove, as complex a maze of human stories as one might expect in a book this massive. It’s not just a pulp western, regardless what I may have originally feared when I picked up the book.

I’m not usually one for epics or westerns, so I didn’t expect to think a huge amount of an epic western. However, there is a reason why Lonesome Dove is regarded as perhaps the best epic western around. If someone thinks more highly of another, I haven’t heard about it.

Despite a staggering number of characters, I didn’t have any problem keeping people straight. Also, despite a staggering number of pages, McMurtry didn’t seem to have any problem keeping his eye on his scope, a statement about how humans live their lives made in such a way that you can always grasp but perhaps not completely articulate. Lonesome Dove moves, it thrills, and it does so in an unpretentious fashion. In short, which is perhaps not a term really applicable to Lonesome Dove, it’s some very fine writing.

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

First, I apologize for the lateness of my post.

Yesterday, I got to have adventures that only parents of small children really get to have. Ones involving a sore throat that vanishes, so no doctor visit needed, to a scalp getting cut open on the corner of a stool, so doctor visit needed, to a “just in case” throat swab turning into an antibiotic for strep throat. Yeah, one of those days yesterday.

Anyway, I read Treasure Island this week. This is probably one of those books that I -should- have read as a child but didn’t. I don’t know if it was never pointed my way because I was a girl. Or if it was pointed my way but I was more interested in pioneer girls, twins with identical descriptions right down to the necklace they wore always on page 6 of each book, or money making clubs involving 4 very different girls with 4 very different clothing and personality styles than with pirates and treasure. ***If you can name all 3 book series I just alluded to, I will send you a book from my bookshelves. I won’t tell you which one, but it will be one that I’ve reviewed for this blog.*** (Dave, you’re exempt from this as you probably have all the books I would consider sending already)

Anyway, I never read it. And now I wish I had. It would have been a fun re-read. As it was, as an adult, I still really was absorbed in the story.

The copy of the book that I checked out from the library has a quote from J.M. Barrie on it:
“Over Treasure Island I let my fire die in winter without knowing that I was freezing”.

I never got quite as bad as Mr. Barrie (also, the advent of electric heat really helped), I was pretty into it. I even managed to read a chapter while waiting for the doctor to come staple my daughter’s head. (She was fine by this point and was opening drawers in the exam room. And Greg was there. Before you think I was some inattentive mom who doesn’t care).

Thomas Keneally listed Treasure Island in his top ten.

If you’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, or any other variety of pirate movies, you have watched bits and pieces of Treasure Island already. Stevenson’s work influenced portrayals of pirates in literature and cinema almost from the beginning. J.M. Barrie, after rebuilding his fire and flexing his frozen fingers, proceeded to use Stevenson as an influence for Smee and Capt Hook and all things pirates in Peter Pan.

Treasure Island is told mainly by the view point of a young man, Mr. Hawkins. The antagonist in the story is Long John Silver. Thinking on it, he does resemble the fast food restaurant he is named after. He can seem very, very nice on the surface, making you think you’re getting a true gentleman. But, after, after he’s wormed his way into your life, well then he turns nasty. He keeps you up at night, he makes you fear for your life. But yet, after all of that, he can sit down and charm you all over again. Kudos to the namer of Long John Silver’s!

There’s a pirate’s buried treasure on an island. There’s a ship full of pirates who are disguised as honest men who mutiny. There’s treachery (on both the “good” and “bad” sides), courage, slyness, honor (on both the “good” and the “bad” side), murder (on both sides), stranded marooned pirates, and riches beyond all imaginings that are as drenched in blood as Indiana Jones movies’ treasures.

Just read it. If you haven’t already. If you have kids, read it to them. (Right now, Amelia is more into Princess Palace Pets, but one day I will get this read to her, ONE DAY!).

Trust me. Read it.

Norwood by Charles Portis

I got another surprise (readers of my personal blog will know what I mean by ‘another’) when I picked up Norwood by Charles Portis. I don’t know Portis, but I know he wrote True Grit. I haven’t read it, or seen any of the versions of the movie, (or realized that Kim was coincidentally going to review it the week before I posted this already written review) but I know enough about it to know cowboys are involved. For some reason, I imagined Norwood would somehow be related.

It isn’t.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Walter Kirn)

Well, perhaps just the tiniest bit. The main character wears a cowboy hat and wants to be a country singer, but that’s about it. It’s set around the Korean war. No ranches. That was a good thing for me, though. I didn’t really want to read about cowboys.

Norwood Pratt comes home from the Korean War to take care of his adult sister in Ralph, Texas after his father dies. His sister recovers herself shortly, and Norwood begins to feel trapped:

The job worked out too well. Money and position went to Vernell’s head. She stopped crying. Her health and posture improved. She even became something of a flirt. She grew daily more confident and assertive and at home she would drop the names of prominent Lions and Kiwanians. Norwood listened in cold silence as she brought home choice downtown gossip and made familiar references to undertakers and lawyers and Ford dealers. Norwood had nothing to counter with. No one you could quote traded at the Nipper station. Customers were local Negroes and high school kids, and out-of-state felons in flight from prosecution and other economy-minded transients, most of whom carried their own strange motor oil in the back seats, oil that was stranger and cheaper than anything even in the Nipper inventory. Some weeks, with her tips, Vernell made more money than Norwood. It was a terrible state of affairs and Norwood would not have believed that things were to become worse almost overnight.

Then with absolutely no warning Vernell married a disabled veteran named Bill Bird and brought him home to live in the little house on the highway. Bill Bird was an older man. He had drifted into Ralph for no very clear reason after being discharged from the VA hospital in Dallas. He took a room at the New Ralph Hotel, monthly rate, and passed his time in the coffee shop, at the corner table under the an, reading Pageant and Grit and pondering the graphs in U.S. News & World Report. Vernell took to Bill Bird at once. She liked his quiet, thoughtful air and his scholarship. She kept his cup filled with coffee and during lulls she would sit at this table and enjoy him. Bill Bird was at the same time attentive to Vernell in many little ways.

Norwood ends up taking off on an adventure when a questionable businessman hires him to drive a car to New York City, where Norwood hopes to get some money owed him by an old military buddy. Norwood jettisons the car when he finds out its stolen, and the adventures only increase from there…though at a leisurely pace.

Getting engaged to a woman on a bus, meeting the world’s second shortest midget, rescuing a college educated chicken, Norwood has an interesting journey around the country. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more engaging than my regular drives between Omaha and Denver.

Norwood was refreshingly different from what I expected. I found it unforced and plainspoken, but still interestingly odd. The reason for the drive behind the book seems a little elusive, but it’s still a pleasure to read anyway. Norwood certainly presents an interesting and vivid picture of a particular era in America.

True Grit by Charles Portis

George Pelacanos listed True Grit in his Top Ten.

I’ve seen the remake of True Grit that came out a few years ago. I loved it. Which means, I was actually a little leery of reading the book, since usually one will differ strongly from the other.

That’s not the case here. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more faithful book to movie in my life. It was gratifying to read a book that translated so well to the big screen.

The story’s first person narrator is a 14 year old girl named Mattie. It takes place in the “Wild West” after the Civil War. Mattie’s father is shot dead while visiting a town to buy horses by his hired help who was drunk and wanting a fight. He then steals all of her father’s money and two sentimental gold pieces he has, as well as the horse.

Mattie comes to town, the impression given of her mother is of a woman not strong enough to deal with. Mattie is definitely painted (by herself, but also by the fact that she is the one in town to deal with sending her father back home) as a very capable 14 year old.

“Lawyer Daggett had gone to Helena to try one of his steamboat suits and so Yarnell and I rode the train to Fort Smith to see about Papa’s body. I took around one hundred dollars expense money and wrote myself out a letter of identification and signed Lawyer Daggett’s name to it and had Mama sign it as well. She was in bed.”

That’s the first paragraph of the book.

Later:

“Perhaps you can imagine how painful it was for us to go directly from that appalling scene to the undertaker’s where my father lay dead. Nevertheless it had to be done. I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task.”

Mattie is a faithful narrator, giving us all the small details as well as the large ones.

“I got to the Monarch in time to eat. Mrs. Floyd said she had no vacant room because of the big crowd in town but that she would put me up somehow. The daily rate was seventy-five cents a night with two meals and a dollar with three meals. She did not have a rate for one meal so I was obliged to give her seventy-five cents even though I had planned to buy some cheese and crackers the next morning for my daytime eats. I don’t know what her weekly rate was.”

She decides to hire a U.S. Marshall to help her go into Indian Territory to find her dad’s murderer. She asks the sheriff for help as to hire.

“The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that propostion. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.”

She picks Rooster Cogburn. An older man, who definitely shoots first and asks questions later, as Mattie shows by providing the transcript for a trial she watches that Rooster was the US Marshall for. He gets raked over the coals by the defense attorney for this character trait. Later, Mattie goes and finds Rooster and has dinner with him and his Chinese landlord. And we find out that Rooster is also a drinker.

“He was drunk and he was fooling around with Papa’s pistol. He pointed out something on the floor over by the curtain that opened into the store. I looked and it was a big long barn rat. HE sat there hunkered on the floor, his tail flat, and he was eating meal that was spilling out of a hole in the sack. I gave a start but Rooster put his tobacco-smelling hand over my mouth and gripped my cheeks and held me down.
He said, “Be right still.” I looked around for Lee but figured he must have gone to bed. Rooster said, “I will try this the new way. Now watch.” He leaned forward and spoke at the rat in a low voice, saying, “I have a writ here that says for you to stop eating Chen Lee’s corn meal forthwith. IT is a rat writ. It is a writ for a rat and this is lawful service of said writ.” Then he looked over at me and said, “Has he stopped?” I gave no reply. I have never wasted any time encouraging drunkards or show-offs. He said, “It don’t look like to me he has stopped.” He was holding Papa’s revolver down at his left side and he fired twice without aiming. The noise filled up that little room and made the curtains jump. My ears rang. There was a good deal of smoke.”

Rooster agrees finally to go after Tom Chaney. Mattie insists upon going with him. Prior to their leaving, she meets with a Texas Ranger at the boarding house she is staying at.

“Toward the end of the meal a stranger came in wearing two revolvers and made known that he was seeking room and board. He was a nice-looking man around thirty years of age with a “cowlick” at the crown of his head. He needed a bath and a shave but you could tell that was not his usual condition. He looked to be a man of good family. He had pale-blue eyes and auburn hair. He was wearing a long corduroy coat. His manner was stuck-up and he had a smug grin that made you nervous when he turned it on you”.

Later:
“”What is your name?” said he.
“Pudding and tame,” said I.
He said, “I will take a guess and say it is Mattie Ross.”
“How do you know that?”
“My name is LaBoeuf,” he said. He called it LaBeef but spelled it something like LaBoeuf. “I saw your mother just two days ago. She is worried about you.”
“What was your business with her, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
“I will disclose that after I eat. I would like to have a confidential conversation with you.”

Later:

“LaBoeuf showed me a letter that identified him as a Sergeant of Texas Rangers, working out of a place called Ysleta near El Paso. He said, “I am on a detached service just now. I am working for the family of Senator Bibbs in Waco.”

Mattie informs him she needs no help as she has hired Cogburn. Later, LaBoeuf finds Cogburn and talks him into helping. Mattie attempts to keep LaBoeuf out of it, telling Cogburn they do not need his help and she is paying him. But LaBoeuf promises a good amount of reward money for catching Chaney, as he is wanted in Texas for killing a senator.

“I was so mad I could have bitten my tongue off.”

They proposed to leave her behind, but Mattie forces them into taking her, by leaping her horse into the water after they have paid the ferry operator to take her back to the other side, and having her horse swim the water. LaBoeuf is so mad that he actually takes a switch to Mattie’s rear. Finally Cogburn makes him stop and lets Mattie come.

They go in search of Chaney. And run into quite a few outlaws along the way. They find him. One of the fascinating things of this story was seeing these three very different personalities starting out on one foot, but by the end working as a unit and a team, and not in a corporate hoorah meeting’s meaning of the word team, but in the true sense.

The narrative by Mattie is simple, straightforward and very forthright. You always hear of someone being described as forthright, but I don’t think I have ever seen a character or person more forthright than Mattie. She hires Cogburn because he has “true grit”. But the story shows that Mattie herself has the most true grit of all of them. She never stops, even when completely terrified and in danger of her life.

The story ends with Mattie looking back and 25 years later attempting to contact Rooster Cogburn. She never talked to LaBeouf again after the adventure.

It’s a coming of age tale, but one done so masterfully that it doesn’t seem that way at first. It was only as I sat down to write this blog that I came to that realization. I think it’s also because most coming of age stories about girls/women do not involve this type of adventure. If Mattie had been a boy, it would have been glaringly obvious.

This was a great book and it is one that I could see myself re-reading at some point. It’s a shorter book and easy to get absorbed in.

Hope everyone has a great weekend! I am going to be spending the next day attempting to find the phantom bad odor that is haunting my kitchen and living room (and trust me, Greg and I both have spent a lot of time sniffing at everything with our face up to it. It’s coming from nowhere we can find). I’d describe the smell but my description isn’t really fit for this blog haha.