Study Guide

Lonesome Dove Setting

By Larry McMurtry


The American West, Late 19th Century

Oh, Give Us a Home, Where the Buffalo Decompose

The trek taken in Lonesome Dove—from the border of Mexico to Montana—would be long even in a car. Imagine doing it on a horse and without Google Maps. Yeah, that way, it takes months instead of a couple of days. Modern-day dangers would include a flat tire, running out of gas, or getting lost. In the late 19th century, there are no roads. There aren't even rubber tires. The men have to cross rivers while worrying about drowning, snakes, grizzly bears, bandits, and angry Indians.

Yes, we said Indians. The book takes place at a dicey time in American history. Most of the Native Americans have been driven from their lands, but some tribes remain, and they're angry. The cowboys in Lonesome Dove don't get into why they're angry. They're a shoot-first-ask-questions-never type of bunch. But Lonesome Dove also doesn't stereotype all Indians as "angry red men." Some Indians are mean, some are starving, and some are stealing horses not to ride, but to eat. It's the same with the white men. Some are good. Some are bad.

It's a time of transition for all people, not to mention for the country and for the land itself. One of the book's most poignant images involves the vast plain of bison bones Gus encounters. He remembers a time when the bison roamed, but due to all the hunting, they might be going extinct. That shows that things are really changing around here. Death is right around the corner, and even nature's feeling the pinch.

Gus ponders how the vast countryside of Montana can be imposing but also beautiful at the same time. Many men believe that "the Montana skies seemed deeper than the skies of Texas or Nebraska" (93.3), which makes the hardship seem worth it. It's a land of new opportunity.

But others don't necessarily feel this way. They see Montana and want to go home. We're talking about people like Deets, whose "heart was heavy with a longing for Texas" (70.49). Gus too wants to return to Texas in death. Lonesome Dove just got to some of these guys.

Oh, yeah. This is the "Setting" section: did you think we forgot that little town? Guess again: we talk about this memorable place that's barely on the map in our "What's Up with the Title?" section.

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