Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Unrequited Love: The Men and Women of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

My lovely wife, the Middle-Aged Woman at Unmitigated (and Unfocused), agreed to help me out by sharing her thoughts on a book that we both love, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. As usual, the man (in this case, me) is rather wordy - so I hope that both you and the Middle-Aged Woman will forgive my - expansiveness.

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

She Read:

Larry Mc Murtry's Lonesome Dove is primarily the tale of two men; Augustus McRae (Gus) and Woodrow Call (Call or Cap'n Call). They met as young men, and together were Texas Rangers mid-19th century. As older men, they live on a dry wreck of a ranch on the Rio Grande in a town called Lonesome Dove. An old comrade comes back into their lives, and Gus and Call find themselves on a trip north to Montana to re-settle and run a cattle ranch.

While the narrative focuses on the events surrounding these two, nearly every major event in the story is precipitated by the interactions of a male/female relationship; husbands, wives, and lovers. At this point, you may as well get used to the term "whore." Three of the women we'll be talking about are prostitutes, but in the old west, they were called whores, and that's what McMurtry uses throughout.


The first couple we will meet is Gus and Clara. I start with them because they met as very young people and Gus courted Clara, though she would never consent to marry him. She felt he was too much of a wild 'un to settle down and raise a family. Clara instead married Bob, kind of a prosaic character who is comatose when the story takes place. Clara is taking care of him until he dies of his injuries from being kicked by a horse.

In this relationship, both parties like to think they are in control, but the truth is that neither of them is. They are equally hard-headed and stubborn, and probably would not have made a good match if they had married. Gus yearns for Clara outwardly. Inwardly, I think, he yearns for the days when he felt he was young and happy. Clara is fond of Gus, but longs for independence. She is an all respects a better ranch manager and businessperson than her husband was, yet as a woman in the Nebraska frontier she will never garner the respect she deserves.

In the course of the cattle drive north, Gus and Clara are reunited. Aware that Clara's husband will never recover from his injuries, Gus declares his very real love for her, which has rekindled as the miles between them grew shorter. But there are always complications aren't there? More on that later.


Maggie was a whore in Lonesome Dove, and the only woman in Call's very solitary life. Before she died, she bore a child, Newt, whom everyone but Call can see is Call's son. In the story, Newt is sixteen or seventeen years old. He lives with Gus and Call, who took him in to care for him after Maggie died.

By withholding his love, Call leads this quasi-relationship. At one point, Gus scolds Call for never referring to Maggie by name. She died broken-hearted, wanting to give her love to a man to a man who could neither accept it nor reciprocate.

The complication in this relationship is Newt. Gus tells Newt that his presence is always a reminder to Cap'n. Call of what he considers a past weakness. This painful reminder is why Call cannot bring himself to admit he is the boy's father.


July Johnson is the hapless sheriff of Fort Smith, Arkansas. His wife, Ellie, one mighty mean woman, is a former whore. She married July, though she still loves Dee Boot, a scoundrel with whom she has a history. July and Ellie's son, Joe, are on a mission to find a friend of Gus and Call's friend(Jake Spoon)and bring him back to town for trial for the accidental shooting of the town dentist. While they are gone, Ellie decides to leave to search for her true love, Dee Boot.

Though July is, in many respects, a good man, he is also a very weak one. He is blinded by his love for Ellie, though she rarely shows him anything but disdain. He is much too simple a man to realize that his love for her is not returned. He leaves on a nearly hopeless mission to find Jake Spoon at the insistance of his sister-in-law, Peach, and takes the young boy, Joe, along at the instance of Ellie.

When he learns that Ellie has left home, he abandons his original quest and begins hunting for her. On Ellie's trip to Ogallala, where she left Dee, she spares not a moment of thought for July or Joe.


Lorena Wood is a beautiful young girl who by one stroke of bad luck or naivete after another, ends up as a whore in Lonesome Dove. Xavier, who owns the bar where she lives/works loves her unrequitedly. Gus is a good friend to her, and all the young men around are anxious for her attention. Because she hopes to leave Lonesome Dove, she falls for Jake Spoon, who makes empty promises to Lorie. While Gus is her best customer, he is also one of the few people she trusts enough to open up to.

Gus could easily rule Lorie's heart and mind, though he chooses not to. After he rescues her from the vicious Blue Duck, she becomes doubly dependent on him, forming a bond with him that seems like love, but is borne out of fear of abandonment.

When Gus declares his love to Clara, she recognizes the attachment Lorie has to him, but Gus declares that he would "send Lorie to perdition," for the chance to love Clara once again (the complication I hinted at earlier).

In all of these pairings, the complications and conflicts outweigh or outlast the strength of the relationship. Clara tosses Gus aside for the steady, but boring, Bob. Maggie dies never having felt love from Woodrow Call. Ellie deserts July in favor of a man she once knew as a whore. Though Lorie does not lose Gus to Clara as she fears will happen, she still loses him in the end, and it nearly kills her.

Some see this story as a tale of the old west and an unwise choice, made on the spur of the moment, to take on one last great adventure. I see it as a story rife with unwise choices in life, but more often in love.

He Read:
“If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk – and feisty gentlemen.”
--Capt. Augustus McCrae
Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, weaves an engrossing tale of adventure, love and loss around the central story of an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana, and the life-long friendship of two Texas Rangers, Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call, who undertake the journey; one with the dream of starting the first cattle ranch in that frontier territory, the other using the journey as an opportunity to be reunited with an old flame.

Nearly all of the tragedies, great and small, that befall the rich cast of characters in this book seem to arise from “want(ing) one thing too much.” The story is filled with couples who can’t connect with one another– and some characters who can’t or don’t want to connect with anyone. I’ll offer my thoughts on the book through a consideration of couples from Lonesome Dove – but first, a warning for female readers unfamiliar with the story.

One thing that is impossible to overlook in discussing Lonesome Dove is the “second-class” view of women inherent in a story of the America’s Western frontier in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Females are permitted to be one of the three Ws: wives, widows or whores. Other roles are not permitted – or at least, understood – by the inhabitants of the novel. Of the four female characters that drive McMurtry’s narrative, three are, or were, in this last category; in the course of the story, more than one of the women move from one role into another – sometimes by choice, more often by circumstance.

The woman who inhabits the novel from beginning to end is also the one who is dead before the narrative begins. Maggie is the proverbial “whore with the heart of gold”, the only woman ever to have captured, for a time, the attentions of Woodrow Call. And also the only woman unfortunate enough to have fallen in love with the Captain, only to be left behind when duty called – or when the urge to be away arose. McMurtry describes Call’s memories of Maggie:

“Over all those years, he could still remember how her eyes fixed on him hopefully when he entered, or when he was ready to leave. It was the most painful part of the memory – he had not asked her to care for him that much, yet she had. He had only asked to buy what other men had bought, but she had singled him out in a way he had never understood.

He felt a heavy guilt, though, because he had gone back time after time, and had let the need grow without even thinking about it or recognizing it. And then he left.”
Maggie wants one thing too much: the love of Woodrow F. Call. Following his departure, she bears Call the son he can never bring himself to claim as his own – and drinks herself into oblivion. The boy, Newt, is raised by the members of the Hat Creek Cattle Company (Woodrow, Augustus, another former Texas Ranger, Pea Eye Parker, and their black scout, Joshua Deets). But none of the men who had known Maggie (including Augustus and another former Ranger turned gambler, Jake Spoon, whose return to Lonesome Dove serves as a catalyst to the drive to Montana) will claim the child of a whore as their son.

July and Elmira Johnson are newlyweds from Fort Smith, Arkansas; he is the young sheriff of that small town and his new wife is (he believes) a young widow with a son, Joe, by her previous husband. Their story becomes intertwined with that of Lonesome Dove’s main characters when July must leave town to locate a gambler (Jake Spoon) who has accidentally shot and killed his brother, the mayor of Fort Smith. When we first meet the Johnsons, they have only been married about six months – and Ellie’s boredom with her married life is reflected in her domineering treatment of July. Against his better judgment, she convinces July to take Joe with him on the manhunt – and uses the opportunity to leave Fort Smith on a whiskey boat travelling north up the Arkansas River. As readers, we find out quickly what will only become clear to July after much heartbreak: his wife does not – has never – loved him.

July’s journey intersects with that of Gus McCrae at two critical points. First, they meet during Gus’ pursuit of Blue Duck, a half-breed Indian, outlaw and murderer, who has stolen a woman. The woman is Lorena Wood, the beautiful young whore, who has set out from Lonesome Dove with Jake Spoon on the promise that he will take her to San Francisco. July accompanies Gus on his final mission to retrieve Lorie from the gang holding her prisoner, in the faint hope that he will find his wife, Ellie, there as well. He watches as Gus annihilates the gang – though he never fires a shot.

They meet again in Ogallala, Nebraska. Ogallala has been Augustus McCrae’s primary destination on the cattle drive all along. Augustus and July meet at the home of Clara Allen, Gus’ old sweetheart, who lives there with her horse-trader husband, Bob, and their two young daughters, Sally and Betsey. In fact, the story brings Ellie, July and Gus all into Clara’s home at one point or another; and it is Clara who sees clearly what July cannot. At one point, she tries to explain to her daughters the folly of unrequited love.
“I know people ain’t smart and often love those who don’t care for them...I think it’s a sickness to grieve too much for those who never cared a fig for you...July don’t want to face up to the fact that his wife never loved him,” she said.

“She ought to have loved him,” Sally said.

“Ought don’t count for as much as a gnat when you’re talking about love,” Clara said. “She didn’t.”
July, too, wants one thing too much – but, although it comes close, it does not destroy him as Maggie’s desire for Woodrow destroyed her.

In the wake of her rescue, Lorena devotes herself to Gus and shuns all other human contact. In her mind, Augustus McCrae is the only person that can protect her from the rest of the cruel world. As they near Ogallala, Lorie fears that Gus will leave her – abandoning her for his old love, Clara. But her fears are unfounded as both Clara and Gus are both devoted more to the idea of the other than the reality.

Clara expresses it this way, speaking to Gus during a few moments alone, following their reunion:
“You’ve been my dream, Gus. I used to think about you two or three hours a day.”

“I wish you’d wrote, then,” he said.

“I didn’t want you here,” she said. “I needed the dreams. I knew you for a rake and a rambler but it was sweet to pretend that you loved only me.”
Gus expresses his views on women most honestly to Newt:
“I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for, and Woodrow too…Now there’s women, of course,” Augustus said. “I do cotton to them. But I ain’t found the one yet that could hold me back from a chance like this. Women are persistent creatures, and will try to nail you down. But if you just dance on off, you’ll usually find them close to the spot where you left them – most of ‘em.”
Of all the couples in this expansive novel, Gus and Clara are the most honest with one another – and as a result, come the closest to connecting with each other, and appreciating each other for what they really are. They both seem to understand that they could never really be together in a permanent way – but can still appreciate each other in a way that the other couples – even those who do remain together to the end – aren't able to do. Clara and Gus seem to have avoided the trap of wanting one thing too much.

The inability to fully connect with others as portrayed in Lonesome Dove is not strictly a male/female problem. Call’s relationships with both Newt and Augustus are both troubled – primarily due to his guilt over the circumstances of Maggie’s end. The cattle drive is both Call’s attempt to start a new chapter in life and Newt’s journey to manhood; over the course of that adventure, Call comes finally to realize that the boy is his son – but steadfastly refuses to speak of it. Once they have reached Montana, Gus finally takes it upon himself to tell Newt the truth – to both reveal the identity and attempt to explain the nature of his father.
“What you have to understand is that Woodrow Call is a peculiar man. He likes to think that things are a certain way. He likes to think that everybody does their duty, especially him. He likes to think people live for duty–I don’t know what started him thinking that way. He ain’t dumb. He knows perfectly well people don’t live for duty. But he won’t admit it about anybody if he can help it, and he especially won’t admit it about himself."
Soon after reaching Montana, Gus is wounded in a skirmish with a small band of Indians while scouting ahead for the herd. Although he escapes, his untreated wounds are a death sentence. When Call locates Gus, he is beyond saving. Gus asks Woodrow to bury him in Texas – and Call foolishly agrees. Then once again, before the end, Maggie’s memory intrudes upon their friendship for a final time.
“I hope you won’t mistreat Newt,” he said.

“Have I ever mistreated him?” Call asked.

“Yes, always,” Augustus said. “I admit it’s practically your only sin, but it’s a big one. You ought to do better by that boy. He’s the only son you’ll ever have – I’d bet my wad on that – though I guess it’s possible you’ll take to women in your old age.”

“No, I won’t,” Call said. “They don’t like me…”

“…Women are goddamn right not to like you. You don’t want to admit you ever needed one of them, even for a moment’s pleasure. Though you’re human, and you did need one once – but you don’t want to need nothing you can’t get for yourself.”

Call didn’t answer. It seemed wrong to quarrel while Gus was dying. Always over the same thing too. That one thing, after all they had done together.
It is only after Gus’ death, once the new ranch in Montana has been established, that Call begins to see what Gus had long known. In the weeks before Call plans to leave Montana and return to Texas, he watches with “a keen pleasure” each day as Newt works to train horses:
He felt proud of the boy, and with it, anguish that their beginnings had been as they had. It could not be changed, though. He thought he might speak of it sometime, as Gus had wanted him to, and yet he said nothing. He couldn’t. If he happened to be alone with the boy, his words went away. At the thought of speaking about it tightness came into his throat, as if a hand had seized it.
When the time comes for Call to leave his newly-started ranch in Montana, he leaves the boy in charge, acknowledging in every way but words that Newt is his son. This parting, bitter and poignant, is one of the most memorable in a novel filled with partings.
When he turned back to look at the boy the choking feeling almost overcame him. He decided he would tell the boy he was his son… And yet, when he looked at Newt, standing there in the cold wind, with Canada behind him, Call found he couldn’t speak at all. It was as if his whole life had suddenly lodging in his throat, a raw bite he could neither spit out nor swallow…he felt that he was choking – choking on himself. He felt he had failed in all that he had tried to be: the good boy standing there was evidence of it. The shame he felt was so strong it stopped the words in his throat…All his life he had preached honesty to his men and had summarily discharged those who were not capable of it, though they had mostly only lied about duties neglected or orders sloppily executed. He himself was far worse, for he had been dishonest about his own son, who stood not ten feet away…He wished he had died…with Gus. It would have been easier than knowing he could not be honest. His own son stood there – surely, it was true; after doubting it for years, his own mind told him over and over that it was true – yet he couldn’t call him a son. His honesty was lost, had long been lost, and he only wanted to leave.
Call’s tragic flaw is not uncommon in men – his inability to express his true feelings when these are in contradiction with his own self-image. What does he want too much? To not need anyone, perhaps – or to be the person he imagines himself to be, instead of facing up to the person he really is.

Call and Clara are the two strongest characters to survive the tale – and in their final encounter, as Clara tries to goad Woodrow into abandoning the foolishness of returning McCrae’s body to Texas for burial, she summarizes the situation confronted not only by many of the fictional characters in the novel – but so many people in their daily lives:
“[Gus] wanted what I wouldn’t give. I wanted what he didn’t have.”
It is a truth so hard that many cannot face it. But in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, we can immerse ourselves in a place and time and a group of characters so vivid, that it can help us to remember – that by learning to like everyday things, we can better appreciate life’s journey and those who share it with us.

[Hope you enjoyed this edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including suggestions and constructive criticism.

Special thanks to the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated for sharing her thoughts on Lonesome Dove. Maybe if I ask her very nicely, she will do it again sometime. I would even let her pick the book.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

I don't know exactly when the next new post will appear at this site. If you want to stay in the know, please stop by Speaking in CAPS . I will be making announcements about forthcoming He Read/She Read posts there.

And don’t forget to visit the Middle-Aged Woman on her home turf at Unmitigated. You won't regret it.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And there are no additives or preservatives.]


Middle Aged Woman said...

Oh my. You are amazingly eloquent...again. Thanks for the opportunity, honey. It was fun to dive into Lonesome Dove again.

Sprite's Keeper said...

Oh, wow! I felt like it was two different books based on your reviews, yet based on the same people! Somehow, it doesn't seem like anything in the way of love survives in Lonesome Dove. Apt title, that.

Sara said...

I'm going to admit, though Lonesome Dove is always on the shelf at the store where I work, it's not one I would ever pick up on my own. Just not my thing, or so I thought.

Based on both of your reviews, the book sounds quite lovely, if not a tad bit depressing.

So, when are you going to tackle Anna Karenina? ;)

Middle Aged Woman said...

Sprite's Keeper- I don't know if that's good or bad!

Sara - I can't recommend it highly enough. That's why we always pick up any thrift shop or book sale copies that we can. We give them away frequently.

blissfully caffeinated said...

Hey, I'm glad Sprite's Keeper directed me this way. I've never gotten around to reading Lonesome Dove. Will definitely have to pick it up some time.

Captain Dumbass said...

Hmm, I don't know. You both made it sound interesting enough, but...

I'm getting nervous about my post with MAW, I don't think I can write this much about a book.

Jim Styro said...

BC: I'm glad the Sprite Mama sent you over as well. Thanks for your comment - I think if you do find time for Lonesome Dove, it will be time well-spent.

Cap'n: Relax, dude. Just because I'm a pompous windbag doesn't mean that you have to be one.

Middle Aged Woman said...

Cap'n - Geeky as it may sound, this is as naught compared to some of the in-person discussions we have shared about this book. We are weird like that.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't sure that I'd read Lonesome Dove; but when reading your reviews it all came back to me.
Great work from both of you.
I'm currently reading the new (second) book from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, "The Angel's Game". Does anyone want to read it with me?

Hazel said...

Wow, I'm gonna have to check that one out. NEVER would have considered it before. Nice.

Middle Aged Woman said...

Dedene - we have each read Lonesome Dove numerous times, Styro much more than I, I think.

Hazel - I promise, it's worth every moment of your time!

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