RHC 2018: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task 1: Read a western.

Task 2: Read a book of colonial (Lonesome Dove) or postcolonial (The Inconvenient Indian) literature. 

I’m getting behind with my posting! Weirdly not with the reading itself, just with the odd “write a brief term paper” requirement I’ve tacked on to this challenge. I guess I’ve sort of been putting off this post, because it’s a complicated one.

Back in April, I didn’t just read a western, I read the western – all 843 pages of Lonesome Dove. Truthfully, I haven’t had quite that much fun reading anything in quite some time. Lonesome Dove tapped into a part of my reader brain that I sometimes worry I’ve outgrown – that state of being completely engrossed, up way past my bedtime, and just wanting everyone to get out of my way so I can read.

There are going to be major caveats on this, so bear with me.

Lonesome Dove made me think more than once of George R.R. Martin and other morally complicated epic high fantasies, with its sprawling cast, intersecting story lines, ridiculously detailed settings and landscapes, and continent-scaled adventure. Like A Song of Ice and Fire, likable characters can and do die horribly, and it can happen in narrative moments where you don’t see it coming (there’s a particularly upsetting water moccasin situation). Unlike ASOIAF (with apologies), it has a very well-defined endpoint, so it never feels like it’s losing its way, although the endpoint winds up being a springboard into an unexpected tragedy.

Now, Lonesome Dove is purportedly set in a historical setting, but that setting is basically the American ur-myth. McMurtry has said that he meant for Lonesome Dove to subvert that myth, and in plenty of ways it does (you could almost read it as grimdark western) – Gus and Call have no heroic purpose for their massive, dangerous cattle drive short of being older and looking for one last ill-advised adventure. Call will hang a horse thief without looking twice, even a fellow Ranger he’s known and ridden with for years, but one of the earliest bits of action involves Call leading a raid over the border in Mexico to steal ridiculous numbers of horses and cattle.

The book itself is very aware of Call’s cognitive dissonance, and we see it through Newt’s eyes:

It was puzzling that such a muddy little river like the Rio Grande made such a difference in what was lawful and what was not. On the Texas side, horse stealing was a hanging crime, and many of those who hung for it were Mexican cowboys who came across the river to do pretty much what they themselves were doing. The Captain was known for his sternness where horse thieves were concerned, and yet, here they were, running off a whole herd. Evidently if you crossed the river to do it, it stopped being a crime and started being a game (128).

McMurtry does a phenomenal job of stepping into the shoes of characters across gender, racial, and economic lines too – with one glaring, disappointing, and inexcusable exception, which I’m getting to, I promise.

Nevertheless, I was not expecting to find fantastic female characters in this book, but they are there, with a bullet. Lori, minus her damsel in distress plot moment, which I wasn’t crazy about, is great. Her position as Lonesome Dove’s sole “sporting woman” is unenviable, but her perspective is written with a lot of depth. I definitely wasn’t expecting to read a lot of incredibly accurate depictions of pregnancy and early infancy, either, and then Clara showed up near the end with her memories and repressed grief, not to mention nuclear levels of sass, and seriously surprised me. Even Elmira, who does not fill a sympathetic plot position at all, gets treated with respect and feels interesting and real when McMurtry writes from her perspective:

She herself didn’t care one way or the other about July Johnson, but the dumb quality of his love annoyed her. Men had looked at her that way, and she was not flattered by it. They wanted to pretend, such men, that they were different, that she was different, and that what might happen between them would be different than it would ever be (749).

And all that without even mentioning Louisa Brooks and her pet rattlesnake named Ed.

And then there’s Deets, who is easily the most capable and most likable person in the entire book. McMurtry doesn’t take any shortcuts with that either. There are people on the drive who never manage to look past his black skin, ever, in spite of his abilities, kindness, and the end of his character arc. It’s realistic, painful, and manages to display racism clearly and unambiguously without being anachronistic.

So I need to acknowledge what’s wrong with this book. We have a story that fearlessly wanders in and out of the heads of white, Black, and Mexican men and women in a fairly complex tapestry of the American West, and somehow he manages to tell this story without a single POV Native character.

There are Native characters, but I believe there are only two with names – Blue Duck and Red Cloud (who’s always off page). Blue Duck is a fantastic villain, and I don’t want to suggest that Native characters shouldn’t be allowed to play villain roles – that’s its own sort of narrow mindedness. But other than that, we have the three unnamed Kiowa men who participate in Lori’s captivity, some desperate and starving groups roaming around, and I think that’s it.

In other words, Native people as a demographic group get treated more like scenery than anything else. There’s a moment where Call reflects:

…what he was seeing was a moment between, not the plains as they had been, or as they would be, but a moment of true emptiness, with thousands of miles of grass resting unused, occupied only by remnants – of the Buffalo, the Indians, the hunters (434).

And that takes me straight into The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. One of that book’s major themes is of a failure of white America and Canada to recognize that Native people still exist. They aren’t “remnants” of a bygone era, but part of living, adapting cultures whose perspectives are frequently ignored or erased, but are no less existent because of that.

To that end, King distinguishes between two “types” of Indian in the public imagination – Dead Indians and Live Indians:

One is a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise (66).

King is a funny writer, but it’s humor that non-Native readers may and should be hard pressed to laugh at. The history of Native/white relations in North America just isn’t very funny stuff, and the brutality (often wrapped in the language of bureaucracy and do-gooderism) throughout this book is jaw-dropping (residential Indian “schools” that removed children from their homes and cultures had mortality rates of at least 50%). And that brutality definitely doesn’t end when the era of western expansion does (a Canadian law was passed in 1927 forbidding the speaking of Native languages). In many ways, it’s still going on.

King’s book covers both the United States and Canada (or, rather, the landmass supporting some 600 nations, depending on your geopolitical lens), which makes for fascinating reading, as does this article from the LA Review of Books, which compares its reception in the US and in Canada). My only major complaint is that I wish King had heeded the advice he received from a friend – if he was going to refer to Native people with the homogeneous-sounding term Indians, he should refer to all of the white people in the book as cowboys. Regardless, this is very valuable reading, particularly for non-Native people lacking an education in this history and in our present.

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