I grew up during TV’s golden age of westerns and I hated every minute of them. Those were the days of three networks (four if the cloud ceiling was low enough to bring in PBS) and twenty eight hours of prime time programming every week. On the year I was born there were thirty westerns on television. If you do the math and remember most westerns were an hour long, (except The Virginian, which was 90 minutes) you’ll realize that almost half of the shows aired during family viewing time had rifles, spurs and bonnets in every episode. The Duke was still alive and the go-to movie actor for many dads and Lois L’Amour sold enough paperbacks to deforest a small continent. We were flooded with westerns, inundated with the damn things and it’s probably why my friends became comic book and sci-fi fans. We couldn’t take one more stone-faced guy blowing the black-hats away and then saying, “Shucks, twarn’t nothing, ma’am.” It would take an incredible yarn to make us trade our phasers for a horse and a great story is what we got. Everyone loves Lonesome Dove, and it is a western, but a western that breaks the rules.
Look at all those standard western heroes and what do you see? Strong, silent, incorruptible white men who face the lone prairie with a horse and six-shooter that never needs reloading. Now look at Lonesome Dove’s Hat Creek Company, the group that propels the story. The leaders are two old guys, retired by nineteenth century progress and long past their glory days. Augustus McCrae can be strong when the need arises but not silent; no one talks more than Gus and he prefers the idle life of whiskey, jokes, women and cards to work and cattle. His partner Woodrow Call is closer to the stereotype but his successes are the result of endless worry, obsessive planning and avoiding the women he fears. Call is at heart a shy man, as is his hired hand Pea Eye, and the women they encounter are forthright, a condition that makes many men seek open country.
These strong females are another departure from the standards set by Zane Grey and Owen Wister. Clara Allen is the equal of any male in her acquaintance, including Augustus McCrae, and a much better horse trader than her husband, the nominal head of her business. She does create a home and a family but the other female characters, Lorena Wood, Ellie Johnson and Janey aren’t tied to traditional values or ambitions. Each woman is driven by a defining need, whether it be vengeance, a new beginning or an old lover and any risk will be taken to achieve their ends. If any character reaches the wordlessness of a traditional cowboy, it is Lorena Wood, driven to silence as her last shelter from the men who would use and abuse her.
Traditional westerns divided humanity into racial groups and assigned character traits accordingly so when children played Cowboys and Indians, no one wanted to be an Indian. (Hispanics and black people weren’t even mentioned). Lonesome Dove shows a world of good and bad people, some strong, some weak, some wicked and some kind but the characters are not defined by their background. Dan Suggs is a sociopath and a serial killer and so is Blue Duck. It doesn’t matter that one is the son of a Comanche and the other is Caucasian; what matters is what they do to others. Jake Spoon ‘s weak character is his undoing, and Josh Deets holds the respect of others because of his strengths. Ethnic background doesn’t matter nor formal education in this world. What matters is how someone chooses to live.
Some books leave me satisfied with a story well told and I close the covers and smile. I’m sad when other tales have ended and I return to this world with a sigh. Lonesome Dove left me unable to return at all. My emotions were so high the first time I finished the book, it felt like a part of me had been amputated when I closed the back cover. I wandered into the living room, blinking at the light and full of thoughts about McCrae, Po Campo and the other members of the Hat Creek Cattle Company. The world seemed out of balance and harsh with no story left to read and all of the characters gone. These people were too vivid, too rich and real to die or be put away on pages and I couldn’t bear the thought of them gone. I went back to the bedroom, re-opened the book and began the story again. After fifteen pages, I could put the novel down, satisfied that the denizens of Lonesome Dove were alive and had a lifetime of adventures before them. Then my life could go on.
I was raised in the West and grew up hating Westerns which gave my folks reason for pause. But I love good books, stories so wonderful they burst from the pages and transcend their genres and that’s why I love Lonesome Dove. If you haven’t read it, I envy the adventure you can find but take some advice from a fan. Finish the book when you have time to open and re-start the novel again. You won’t want this story to end.