Study Guide

Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove Introduction

This isn't our first time at the rodeo, y'all. We've explored the West. We've listened to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Garth Brooks. We've even read All Quiet on the Western Front.

Oh, wait—that's the wrong West.

Even so, Lonesome Dove does for Westerns what All Quiet did for war novels—it revolutionized them. In this book, Larry McMurtry took cowboys and Indians from a questionable children's game and brought it into the big leagues with an epic novel that's as much a Western as it is a critique of the genre.

(Did we mention that McMurtry also later wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain? This guy knows his Westerns.)

It's almost impossible to summarize a book with 800+ pages in a couple of lines, but what basically happens is that there's a really long cattle drive from the town of Lonesome Dove, on the Tex-Mex border, all the way to Montana. Along the way, there's love, heartbreak, death, gunshots, arrow shots, whiskey shots, snakes, bulls, bears, and a really weird man who studies bugs. Once you start reading Lonesome Dove, you just can't quit it. Why can't we quit you, Lonesome Dove?

The book perfectly captures the American West at the end of the 19th century. It's so accurate, it feels like it was written from a dusty old saloon with tumbleweed blowing around outside—but it was actually published in 1985. The only tumbleweeds blowing by then would have been neon-colored and wearing leg warmers.

Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, but who cares about stuffy literary awards? What catapulted Lonesome Dove to its status as a cultural icon was the 1989 TV miniseries, back when they did those things. In a time before DVR, this was true must-see TV, and the entire country sat down for over six hours spread across four nights (talk about saddle sores) to watch this epic TV event. The series starred Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae, Tommy Lee Jones as crotchety Woodrow Call, and Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Chris Cooper, and pretty much everyone else, ever—even Steve Buscemi. Heck, even the horses were probably in Babe later on.

For people who liked to watch TV and read, Lonesome Dove marked the beginning of a four-book series, made up of Streets of Laredo (1993), Dead Man's Walk (1995), and Comanche Moon (1997). Each of these books was also adapted into its own TV movie, along with the TV original Return to Lonesome Dove, which told a story not written by Larry McMurtry. But it does feature a young Reese Witherspoon, so it might be worth a look just for that reason.

Of course, we recommend you read the book(s) first, and it's a long journey. So get along, little doggies, for the most epic Western in the history of literature.

What is Lonesome Dove About and Why Should I Care?

"If you read only one Western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove."

That's a quote from USA Today on the back of the 2010 Simon & Schuster paperback edition of the novel. We're not normally ones to do what people simply tell us to do (sorry, 4 out of 5 dentists: we like chewing our sugary gum), but Lonesome Dove really might be the only Western novel you ever need.

A book about cowboys and Indians published in the 1980s, a time of rampant spending and drug use, might seem like it's a nostalgic throwback to the 1880s. But it isn't exactly that. Lonesome Dove was published during an awkward place in United States history, at a time when leg warmers met Wall Street business suits, and it's set in an awkward time in U.S. history.

Yeah, Lonesome Dove is set in post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights era. There's a lot of tension between your stereotypical cowboys and Indians. And with only 37 or 38 states, give or take North Dakota (no really, take it: it's too cold), the United States was still coming of age. Yep, Lonesome Dove is a coming-of-age story, but not just for a teenager: it's a coming-of-age story for the entire nation.

As a result of being set near the turn of the century—the 19th to the 20th century, that is—Lonesome Dove is both looking toward the past and looking toward the future. Yeah, it's a Western because it has cows and lassos and things, but it's also an analysis and deconstruction of the Western genre. It critiques the genre's inherent racism, not to mention its gender issues. It also shows the Western genre as a whole coming of age.

That's right, Shmoopers: Lonesome Dove is pretty much a monumental event with cross-generational appeal, from then, to now, to the future. Hmm, Lonesome Dove 2020,with lasers instead of lassos? It might work.

Yeehaw.

Lonesome Dove Resources

Websites

News from the West
McMurtry's publisher will keep you updated on any upcoming McMurtry events. It's the closest you can get to him without stalking him.

Movie or TV Productions

Not-So-Lonesome Dove
Millions of people loved the miniseries, and millions more got to see it when Hulu started streaming it in 2014.

Lonesome Digest
Don't have five hours to spare? This blog has screenshots from the movie, and you can skim through them like it's an old-school slideshow.

Articles and Interviews

Walkin' in Texas
While not nearly as dramatic as the cattle drive in the book, this journey to visit the set of the movie Lonesome Dove is still fun.

Popping the Bubble
By critiquing the Western, Larry McMurtry created a set of terms that readers found endearing.

The Wings of the Dove
Lonesome Dove defined McMurtry's career. Thirty years later, people still talk about it. McMurtry himself had trouble going on after it was over.

Will the Real Larry McMurtry Please Stand Up?
If you met Larry McMurtry in the 80s, it was probably just someone pretending to be him.

Video

Larry Live
Cowboys died so that museum discussions of books about cowboys could live.

Dove Egg
McMurtry takes a lot of inspiration from history for his book, and this video tells the true story behind Lonesome Dove.

From Book Writer to Book Dealer
McMurtry doesn't just write books, he sells them, too.

Audio

Lorena: The Musical
July hums the song "Lorena" to his baby. You can pretend to be the baby and listen to it—although this version is probably a lot better than anything July could actually do.

The OK Corral
McMurtry thinks Lonesome Dove is only "pretty good."

Images

Which Way is West?
A fan maps out all of Lonesome Dove's important routes.

A Picture of the West
Who do you think this is supposed to be on the iconic first cover of Lonesome Dove? And why aren't there any doves?

A Cloudy Day in Texas
This more modern cover shows a beautiful representation of the Texas sky.