Review: Lonesome Dove, Leadership and Adventure
My brother and his wife gave me the Lonesome Dove miniseries for Christmas. They love it, and knowing my enjoyment of Westerns, thought I would too. Their gift stirred my interest in reading the book, which I determined to do before watching the miniseries.
First, a few comments of comparison and contrast with other favorite Westerns. Despite my enjoyment of Louis L’Amour stories, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove far surpasses L’Amour in storytelling nuance and power. (Here, I compare just L’Amour’s short stories and Lonesome Dove.) L’Amour writes about a moment of tension – Chick Bowdrie stares down a rustler in town. McMurtry writes about a grand adventure – driving the first cattle herd from Texas to Montana. L’Amour’s protagonists are uniformly good people, with little internal tension. Call and Gus possess manifold layers to their characters, some praiseworthy, others less so. My uncle loves the dialogue of the novel, and he’s right – the internal and spoken dialogue far surpasses L’Amour in complexity, self-awareness and exposition of moral quandaries.
Cormac McCarthy’s books, especially Blood Meridian, offer starker language and darker themes. He brings readers into the awfulness of his books through the abandonment of conventions like punctuation, as if to say, “There is nothing to help you in this scene, just as there is nothing in the desert to help these men.” But Lonesome Dove contains some terrible, horrifying scenes, even as McMurtry uses understated language. Indeed, the juxtaposition between the words used and the terrors described somehow makes the events more shocking.
The women – particularly Lorena and Clara – provide the drama of the book, while the men – usually Gus, Call or Jake Spoon – generate the action. Both the action and the drama compel the reader forward page-by-page. I loved this aspect of the book the most – I couldn’t wait to see what happened to the characters, especially Call, Gus and Newt.
Through the actions of Call and Gus, Lonesome Dove also contains lessons on leadership. Call and Gus have the esteem of the Hat Creek men in part through their reputations as outstanding Texas Rangers years before the novel takes place. Interestingly, during the drive, they seem to do little and often ride and sleep physically away from the herd. This distance appears to augment both the perception by others of their leadership qualities, and perhaps also, actually improves those qualities themselves. (Ryan Berg addressed how distance and solitude may be the exact things needed by leaders in this Capitolism post.)
Again, as you read the story of the drive, you note Gus and Call do remarkably little day-to-day. But they do two critical things: make decisions, and prepare for emergencies. As the book goes on, Gus and Call grow as leaders because they do the tough things no one else will do. They grow frustrated when other men in the Hat Creek team do not step up as leaders, and their vexation stems from the men’s inabilities (or unwillingness) to make decisions and act in the face of emergencies. Only Deets among those men possesses some of these leadership traits; Gus and Call clearly trust him the most among the men. And, as the scout, he often ranges far ahead of the herd, distancing himself from it and the other men, reinforcing the sense that leaders require some space, some separation, from those who follow.
Curiously, Gus and Call make few efforts to develop their men into leaders, despite their exasperation. As it turned out, only Newt made growth as a leader, although McMurtry gives the reader few clues as to how that internal evolution occurred. McMurtry suggests innate ability plays a disproportionately large role in leadership, followed by experience and either self-awareness or frequent solitude.
A word about motivation. What motivates the men? The trip begins almost on a lark, at Jake Spoon’s urging. Call appears slightly motivated by money, but that hardly explains a 3,000-mile trip to a strange and untamed land. The men generally seem unenthusiastic about the trip, except that it provides work to a number of them who did not have it.
At times, women, money and the urge for survival impel the men forward. Comradeship, much less friendship, plays hardly any role in motivating them, or in the drama of the book. One of the great questions of the book is why Gus and Call are friends in the first place. They’ve worked together a long time, which undoubtedly comprises part of the answer. But duration alone rarely explains friendship – there must have been another unifying factor.
McMurtry asserts adventure quite definitively as that factor. The challenge and the risk of tasks undone and perhaps never done prodded them early in their lives as Texas Rangers. After lying dormant for years, they reasserted themselves in the trek north to Montana. The Hat Creek men possess this sense of adventure to a lesser degree than Call and Gus, but again, they were just following where Call and Gus led.