Ever since 2010, I’ve been working my way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction. To make it more manageable, I set a goal to read all the winners for the years ending in the current year’s number (so in 2016, I focused on the winners for the years ending in 6). I’ve yet to actually complete those mini-tasks, but they serve as good reminders to not just focus on recent contemporary winners. They also not-so-gently nudge me into reading the books I know I’ll probably hate, just to get them over and done with. *cough* Updike *cough*
Which brings me to Lonesome Dove, a cowboy Western that’s 850+ pages long. I don’t really do cowboy Westerns, and the thought of one that’s the size of 2-3 average books put together was just not my idea of a good time. But there it was, sitting on my Pulitzer TBR list for this year. What finally pushed me towards it? On Goodreads, several people whose reading tastes I trust had all reviewed the book with variations of, “Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.”
Y’ALL. Don’t let the Western thing throw you off. This book is amazing.
The book begins in a dusty little South Texas ranch along the Mexican border. Mexicans cross over and steal their horses, and the Texans cross over and steal them back. The group is headed by two former Texas Rangers, Call and Gus. Call is the stoic leader whom everyone respects; he demands loyalty and plays by the rules. Gus is his oldest friend and complete opposite, an affable old jokester who loves two things: “sporting women” (aka prostitutes) and hearing himself talk. When an old friend from their Ranger days turns up with stories of an unsettled promised land up north, Call decides to close up shop in South Texas, hire a crew, and drive thousands of cattle up to Montana. He and Gus took care of their fair share of Indians back during their glory days as Texas Rangers, so he thinks they can get into Montana, a region that the Army has yet to make safe for settlers.
What transpires over the next 800 pages or so — there’s kind of a slow start — is an epic adventure that frequently had me hunched over my book in anticipation. Yes, there are the requisite clashes with Mexicans and Indians that seem to be present in every Western, but they’re a lot more nuanced than those ridiculous John Wayne scenarios that came to mind when I first read the book’s synopsis. (I also will say — as a Xicana and South Texas native who has a serious problem with the historical mythologizing of the Texas Rangers and who is well aware of how racist and violent they were, especially along the border — I was okay with this aspect of the book, considering the historical context.)
There are also terrifying encounters with wildlife and unexpected flare-ups with the weather. As the group advances towards Montana, other characters on the periphery — mostly male, though the book does include a few headstrong female protagonists who are doing what they need to do to survive — make their way towards them, giving the book a sprawling scope of themes and sub-plots. At the heart of it all are two old men, Gus and Call, coming to a reckoning with their mortality and a few crucial choices they each made in their pasts.
In short, the book is fabulous. I daresay it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it’s certainly at the top of my fiction list so far this year.
Lonesome Dove was first published in 1985; I read the 25th Anniversary edition published by Simon & Schuster.