Category Archives: Epic Novels

Really long books that span generations and decades. Usually there is a lot of crazy family stuff involved.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

“A mortal who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes invisible permanently…”

~Tolkien

These books of mine are worn to tatters. Of course, since the movies came out, everybody knows the story, but for me, I am of the superior group that discovered Tolkien long before Peter Jackson took hold of the books and gave them his vision. Not saying anything about his vision; which was very good and reasonably true to the story, but I read these over and over from the time I was eleven and Tolkien’s initials are tattooed on my back mainly because I consider him a genius and I enjoy having geniuses initials tattooed on my person.

In other words, I love him best, but not for reasons you might think.

His writing style is ver’ ver’ British, of course. He hems and hahs his way through the story using lengthy dialogue and even lengthier description. Modern audiences usually find him a trifle dull. Truthfully, Fellowship is the dullest book of the series. Not a lot of action goes down for the first 300 or so pages, but it sets up the story so we know whats going on after Bilbo takes off and Gandalf discovers the true nature of the Ring and Gollum’s history.

I really like it when Tolkien is describing the subtle changes that are slowly touching on the Shire. Strangers are passing through, Elves are leaving Middle-Earth, all the evil creatures are gathering, and Mordor is rising from the ashes.

This is why I love Tolkien. He is king of tension and drama. Fellowship is the book which gave the movie all of its best lines. I wish it need not have happened in my time, says Frodo and, I will take the ring, though I do not know the way. Every time I read this book I am quite abruptly transported to a true master storyteller’s world. I do not use that phrase lightly. Master. Storyteller.

Before Tolkien, I’m not sure there really were master storytellers who could invent a story, base it cleverly in mythology, and then spend the rest of their life perfecting it. John Ronald did spend most of his life creating Middle Earth and telling himself, then us, its history and legends. Are there writers like this any more? In our world of NYT’s cheap bestsellers and so much fantasy fiction that just seems over-dramatic, clapped together without much thought, and fails to touch us — to send us — in any way.

I don’t read much fantasy fiction, which some of you might find surprising. But the snobbish truth is because I find so much of it lacking. Tolkien was Master, the others that came after him could never emulate him, no matter what the publicists say. There are others, sure, like Robin McKinley and Gregory McGuire, who re-work fairy-tales and blow everyone out of the water with their originality and wonderful language. And I love them. I do. I love Robin McKinley’s books so much it amounts to an obsession. But not in the same way. I admire a lot of different kinds of writers, but let’s just say that what I have read after JRR, when it comes to a stab at epic fantasy, I might enjoy on a surface level, but I would never get the author’s initials tattooed on me.  We’ll leave it there.

My favorite legend of Tolkien goes as follows:

Tolkien spent most of his life putting the story of Beren and Luthien into different forms. The story goes that Beren is a mortal man who falls in love with Luthien, an elf-maiden. Her father disapproves and sends Beren on some impossible tasks. After many difficulties, the two lovers are united and live out their lives as mortal.

Tolkien made it into an epic poem that he never finished. He wrote the story of it into the Lord of the Rings. It was the central part to his life; he based it on many things; Welsh legend and Norse mythology, and his own love story.

Tolkien and his wife’s headstones read as follows:

Edith Mary Tolkien, Luthien, 1889-1971
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973

I suppose, when I think of Tolkien as a genius, and when I worship him as a master storyteller, it’s really the idea of him having such a place to write from; a story that grew and developed until it consumed his world and he became it. It’s what separates him from other writers. I know that fantasy writers tend to half-live their works. It is necessary to spend some time in your dream world, so that you can translate it for the people who dont speak the language. Tolkien had a passion for his world that carried over into this one. That’s why he’s great. That’s why he speaks to us, decade after decade. It’s why I class him as the Master, like his Tom Bombadil; Master of wood and water, but JRR Tolkien was Master of the Imagination and the Pen.

“Just say it,” said Spencer Tracy to a young actor: “Just SAY the words.” In other words, don’t say the lines-say the sentences. It was the key to his acting. Tracy was considered one of the finest actors of all time because he understood the crucial thing about acting…and not only understood it, but could do it as well; Speak the lines as if you thought them first. As if the lines were your words and no one else’s.

Tolkien is kind of like that, with his writing. He just tells the story. Just tells it, as if he knew it, before he knew anything else; as if it were imprinted on his heart.

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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The story of King Arthur, but with a twist. The story is told – at long last – from the woman’s point of view. All I can say about that is, it was about time.

The book is huge. I once had it open on the bar and a bar patron came over, leaned his nose close to the page for a moment or two, looked up at me, squinting, and said seriously: “Is that the Bible?”

It is not. But it does cover three generations. Morgan Le Fay(really named Morgaine) the bad girl of the Arthur legend, is our heroine. As she navigates her way from child to woman to High Priestess of the Holy Isle of Avalon, she tells the story of King Arthur and his knights from her perspective. The story is one of a King put on a throne by the scheming of Avalon. In Avalon, they worship the Goddess, but in Christian Britain, the gradual spread of the worship of only one God is seen as a threat.

The Merlin (he’s always called ‘THE Merlin”, not “Merlin”, because apparently, Merlin is the name for the High Druid of Avalon. There’s a High Druid and a High Priestess. Got it? Good.) So the Merlin and the High Priestess, Viviane, arrange for Ingraine (mother of Morgaine) to meet Urther Pendragon and the two of them get together and create Arthur; daughter of the Holy Isle and the King of Britain bearing a child to rule both lands equally…that’s the idea. And a fine idea it is, until the fates take a hand and everything goes terribly caterwampus.  I think what the real key of the book might be is that Ingraine’s first marriage is something of a mistake, and therefore Morgaine is sort of the bane of the story. If she hadn’t been born, Arthur would not have become the legend he turned into. He would have been beloved and all that, but probably just died of old age, with no complications about religious principles. So focusing on Morgaine, you really see why the story went the way it did.

But Ingraine did get married at fifteen to the Duke of Cornwall, and as a result, Morgaine is Arthur’s half-sister and eventual prime foe in the matter of the Christian God versus the Goddess. It all kicks into gear whenViviane comes to Ingraine and Arthur’s court and discovers that Morgaine has the Sight…the old Scotland second sight….and she takes Morgaine back to Avalon to start training her to eventually become High Priestess. Arthur is put in the care of a foster family, to protect him from unsavory people after the throne, and the sister and brother don’t see each other for years.

It’s in Avalon where you learn that the road to being a priestess is not particularly fun, but all in all, it’s better than being married or in an convent. (The only two options for women in those days) Morgaine learns all about the Mysteries, gets painted with a half moon on her forehead, and just when she’s feeling secure about her future as Lady of the Lake, she meets Lancelot, Viviane’s son, and falls in love with him.

All the women fall in love with Lancelot. It’s like bowling pins dropping, one after the other. But here’s the rub, Lancelot is two things: He’s a warrior, first and foremost, and has no desire to settle down and have kids, and he’s sexually confused. Although he runs off with Guinevere – ASIDE: She’s a pill. She’s the most annoying character in the whole book and you basically want to sock her about every other chapter. All she does is pray, cry, and have miscarriages. She’s a shut-in. She’s afraid of everything. She has absolutely no spine. She gets kidnapped and raped and even that is boring. She’s so freakin’ useless. Basically, she’s just in the way from start to finish and you keep rooting for her to just resign being Queen and go join a nunnery or something. But she waits until she’s ruined everything, and then she goes off to her convent. Ironically, this is when you really start to like her – when she has gained some life experience and finally starts questioning some of her neurotic beliefs. The most frustrating thing about it is that it’s not even her fault she hangs around ruining everything. She’s a pawn in the story, along with the rest of the helpless females.

What was I saying? Oh yes, Lancelot. He does run off with Guinevere, but just ’cause by that time, he’s forced to (the two get caught in bed and it’s either stay and be hanged or run away) but all along, his one true love is Arthur – his besty. So he’s gorgeous and perfect and all that, and he breaks hearts right and left, but deep down he’s all conflicted because he’s gay gay gay.

So begins the long, lurid tale of sex, kings, religion, paganism, and more sex.

Unknowingly, Morgaine is given to the Beltane fires…a ritualistic ceremony where she plays goddess to some guy they are crowning King…they had a lot of little Kings in England, so she didn’t think much about it. Plus she hadn’t been out of Avalon in like, ten years. To her intense horror (and the reader’s) in the morning she discovers she has slept with her own little brother, Arthur.

Viviane tells her its all good and somehow rationalizes it like, “He’s your HALF-brother, and you were the GODDESS,” or some crap like that, but Morgaine is at first furious at being a pawn in Viviane’s plan, and then traumatized to find herself pregnant. This is what Viviane was hoping for… to create a royal bloodline from the two of them to eventually rule England. Creepy. But true. But Morgaine won’t have it. She leaves Avalon and goes to live with her Aunt Morgause in the North Country. While she’s there she has the baby, a boy, and then, feeling conflicted about the fact that he is both her son and her nephew, she leaves him to her Aunt’s care and goes off see what her brother is doing as the new King of England.

Bradley took ten years to write this book. Her research on early Britain is astounding. All of it is historically accurate. Well, the Roman, Saxon, Britain bits, anyway. She mixes in the legend of King Arthur, and old Welsh legends, and expands on it. Brilliant woman. Brilliant writer!

The novel touches on the depths of belief. In the end it asks: How much of what we believe is subjective to our own experience? The answer, of course, is like all answers to that question: It is subjective to our own experience.

Basically Morgaine spends her whole life fighting for the equal representation of the Goddess alongside the Christianity that is overflowing Britain. Many of her allies end up quietly giving up, as Christianity shows no signs of receding. Essentially its the story of ‘the times they are a’ changin'” and most people are willing to change with it, but Morgaine is a Priestess and its her personal job to make sure her belief system doesn’t die out, and that Avalon doesn’t fade into the mists. In the end, she does not really achieve what she hoped, but she realizes that it doesn’t matter too much. The Goddess will exist whether people believe in her or not.

I really admire the way Bradley leaves you doubting that any of the rituals, mysteries, and God(s) or Goddess(s) are even worth all the struggle and fight that the main characters go through. If it weren’t for her beliefs, Morgaine would not have followed the path she did; running off because she’s pissed at Viviane. Leaving her baby son with that unscrupulous Morgause, and spending all her time trying to fit in at court. If it weren’t for the conflict of paganism and Christianity, Arthur would not have followed his path; trying to please everyone, refusing to put aside his barren wife, etc. etc.

The whole time, while you are reading, you want to tell them all to just get over it already and give it up. (And put that stupid Guinevere in a convent already!) But I suppose that’s why I like the book so much. It sucks you in and makes you feel like you are really a part of the story. I mean, if the characters infuriate you and you want to sit them all down and say “Hey, why all the fuss about this? Don’t you get that it all ends up becoming a myth anyway?” that’s the sign of an excellent novel.

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Filed under Epic Novels, Fantasy, History, Literature

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Ah, the classic Priest Fantasy.

What? You might be thinking. That’s blasphemy.

Yeah, but that’s apparently what makes it so hot.

Dirty movies aside, It is my opinion that the Priest Fantasy came straight from Colleen McCullough’s epic novel of love and loss in the heart of Australia.

I personally have never experienced a yen for the saintly brothers of Catholicism, but then, I’m not Catholic and I don’t run across them too much. Anyway, just in case you were wondering what the heck is the deal with the ‘Priest Fantasy’, The Thorn Birds is the book that made this particular fantasy so famous that it became an episode on Sex and the City. Since its publication in 1977, women have been swooning over Father Ralph de Bricassart and his fifty year intense  internal struggle with his celibate faith versus his passionate love for Meggie, the beautiful and spunky girl who he meets when she is, like, six.

(Ok, I can hear you saying: EW. Pedophile! And yes, I admit, to the casual reader, there might be a kind of creepiness to the twenty year old Ralph being super fond of a little girl he’s just met, but in the book it’s all innocent because Father Ralph is a really good man and has absolutely no flaws whatsoever. Except one. And then two, as we find out.)

Meggie’s family, the Clearys, are poor and have come to Australia to live on Drogheda, which is this big ol’ sheep farm belonging to the really wealthy sister of their father’s. Since they are the poor relations, all they have is a hope that when the old lady dies, she’ll leave Drogheda to them. But the sister is a selfish and cruel old cougar-type – she has the hots for Father Ralph, who keeps refusing her advances because he is a godly man.  But she’s also a shrewd woman, and she does find out his first weakness, which is ambition and power. This is key to the novel, because  it is what drives his character forward, and what makes him deny his eventual love for Meggie, his second weakness.

The woman dies and leaves Drogheda to the Holy Catholic Church, with Father Ralph as the trustee. This is a big slap in the face for the Cleary’s, but they are permitted to stay on as managers of the place, working the land and shearing the sheep and all that. They also get to move into the big house and hang with the swanky and elite country club types. Although this may have been pre-country club. And I’m not sure they have country clubs Down Under anyway.

The book follows the entire family for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, and there are a lot of tragic deaths, and broken hearts, and children being big disappointments and going to prison and all the other fun stuff that makes up life. But the main story is the love story of Meggie and Father Ralph.

The young Catholic priest feels an instant pull to little Meggie which (being the wonderful, intelligent, good, honest, fair, just, kind, and devastatingly handsome human being that he is) he interprets this as a ‘elder brother’ kind of thing, (thank goodness) and immediately makes sure that Meggie has a pony, pretty dresses, a good education and stuff like that. The two become best friends.

Of course, as the years roll by, Meggie turns into this gorgeous seventeen year old, and Ralph realizes that he might feel something stronger for Meggie than mere brotherly affection. In a noble attempt to stop himself  from sinning, or bringing scandal on Meggie (who’s starting to catch on to his feelings and reciprocate them)  he leaves Australia. This really doesn’t do much good, since now that hes the trustee of Drogheda, you know he’s got to keep coming back there every few years. While he’s away he keeps telling himself that he only loves God, and that he’s not a real man who’s capable of falling in love. He’s a priest, he keeps reminding himself, he’s above all that – but through it all he can’t get the girl out of his head.

(Note: The thing that bugs me most about Father Ralph is that he does all these contradictory things: he keeps insisting Meggie call him Ralph, not Father, makes out with her while they’re out riding, dreams about her every night, thinks about her every second, but STILL insists that he’s meant to be a priest and that she’s meant to go off and marry some silly boy who’s not half good enough for her and forget him.

Hence the tragedy of the whole book I suppose. I mean, McCullough tells you about his childhood and how he’s kind of disconnected from people and God is the only thing that makes him happy. In a sense you get that she’s trying to convey the idea that Ralph had to wait for Meggie to come along so he could meet her – his soulmate- finding the one person he could truly be happy with, but by that time, its too late, since he’s already fixated on the idea that only the church makes him feel joy and no human will ever compare to that. It’s the tragedy of life. The things we miss along the way because we are so fixated on the way we think stuff is supposed to be. Just something to think about. End of Note)

Meggie, who spends the whole book loving Father Ralph and trying to lure him away from his chosen profession; at first with youth’s certainty that all she has to do is: “talk to him about it and he’ll leave the priesthood for her.’ Then with the more traditional way of a woman-scorned: she goes out an marries the first man she hooks up with (That’ll show him! she thinks. I can get a man and have a kid and move on with my life and THEN he’ll be sorry) Of course, when he hears he does feel sorry, but it doesn’t bring him back to her. Poor Meggie keeps giving up on him in despair, over and over, making sacrifices, finally coming to terms with the fact that he will never be with her although she will love him her whole life- and the beautiful and perfect man just keeps picking his stupid faith over her. You actually want to reach inside the book and slap him upside the head.

Meggie is such a wise-women, with her insight into Father Ralph’s mind, and she calls him on his feelings for her time and time again. But Ralph, man-like, keeps denying that he can be any good for her, and instead he keeps climbing higher in the church, finally becoming an archbishop and so on.

This goes back and forth for the entire span of the book and of course, the reader is delighted and enthralled by the frustrating and thwarted romance that is forbidden at every turn, even though these two people are clearly meant to be together and live happily ever after- they just never quite manage it and as a result: we have the Priest Fantasy.

The book is epic, beautiful, and Colleen McCullough’s best work. It’s Australia’s answer to Gone With the Wind and (surprise, surprise) it was turned into a passable mini-series in the eighties. (What was up with the 1970’s-80’s and it’s love of dramatic mini-series? Lonesome Dove, Rich Man, Poor ManRoots. Seriously.)

In the 1983 mini-series Father Ralph was played by the delicious Richard Chamberlain (who was the ‘it’ romantic leading man of the eighties. Believe me, he may be old now, but he was hot back then) while Meggie is played by the beautiful Rachel Ward. The cast includes Barbara Stanwyck, Christopher Plummer, Jean Simmons, etc etc. and some other old-school stars.

It’s a decent movie. I enjoyed all four hours or whatever of it. Definitely worth watching on a rainy afternoon.

I’m not going to write an excerpt here. Honestly the book is so good I’m not sure I could pick a favorite part. Plus it’s tiring to write all this and then copy out excerpts, too.

Leaving you with this: In the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, Scarlett and Rhett, Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, etc etc etc….add Meggie and Father Ralph. Beautiful and tragic love story. And what’s not to love about that?

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Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Epic Novels, Girly Books

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

I read Lonesome Dove for the first time the winter of 2004. It was my first winter in Montana. I was cold. I was off for six weeks vacation from school. I was sober. Besides going to the gym, I really had no life and I was jobless and slightly depressed. I went to the Missoula library and wandered the dim, dusty, musty-smelling aisles until I chanced upon Larry McMurtry.

Years before, I had a boyfriend who told me over and over again how Lonesome Dove was one of the best books he’d ever read. I can’t say I disbelieved him or anything, but I thought: Oh, that stupid cowboy book?

Ok. I guess I said it out loud.

He assured me it was anything but, and here I was, like six years later, finally picking it up and giving it a try.

I stayed in my room for the next four days and read it straight through. I went through every emotion and every character. I laughed. I cried. I wept. I fell so in love with this book and it’s characters that when it was over, I was both humbled and dazed.

I’d like to formerly apologize to my ex.

Mikey, I apologize. You were right, damn you. (But I’m still not watching The Godfather. I mean, really. That stupid gangster movie?)

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is 944 pages long and every page of it is wonderful.

Augustus and Woodrow Call have been Texas Rangers since they were teenagers. They have a beautiful friendship. Gus is fond of his own voice and good company. Woodrow prefers to ride the open range alone and commune with the night. He doesn’t say things well. (He can’t express himself, but somehow he tugs at my heart more than Gus. Everyone loves Gus, but Call gets to me.)

Lonesome Dove is a little town in Texas. Augustus and Woodrow have settled down after spending most of their adult lives fighting Indians, Mexican bandits and outlaws. They have set up shop running a livery stable called the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and life has become pretty quiet.

Gus is smart, eloquent, funny and easy-going. Call is serious, silent and hard-working. Call ( and Gus) can be summarized roughly in the following passage:

Excerpt:
“He came to the river because he liked to be alone for an hour, and not always be crowded. It seemed to him that he was pressed from dawn till dark, but for no good reason. As a Ranger captain he was naturally pressed to make decisions – and decisions might mean life or death to the men under him. That had been a natural pressure – one that went with the job. Men looked to him, and kept looking, wanting to know he was still there, able to bring them through whatever scrape they might be in. Augustus was just as capable, beneath all his rant, and would have got them through the same scrapes if it had been necessary, but Augustus wouldn’t bother rising to the occasion until it became absolutely necessary. He left the worrying to Call – so the men looked to Call for orders, and got drunk with Augustus.”

The very thing that is so beautiful about these two is their opposite personalities. The very fact that McMurtry has expertly put them together and then put them through hell, (in the earlier books) so they come out on the other side with a loyalty to each other that surpasses any other tie sets up the story marvelously. It is a dominant theme in the book. Friendship. Loyalty.

There’s a whole crapload of characters in this book and I can’t even begin to cover them all.

Newt is a young boy and Call’s illegitimate son, whom he won’t acknowledge because the boy had a whore for a mother and this goes against Call’s personal code of conduct.
(Its the most frustrating thing about Call, the fact that he wont bend and admit that he really was in love with Maggie the poor whore who died years before…and he wont admit that the kid is his and give him his last name. All through the book, you want to throw something at Call, even while you admire him for his courage and his control.)

Deets and Pea-Eye are the most lovable characters. They have both been with Gus and Call for years, rangering with them and working with them. They aren’t the brightest, but they are the most entertaining. I enjoy how McMurtry creates these characters according to the era. In 187o something or other, most cowboys would have had very little formal education, and it shows. He gives them just enough knowledge that they would be expected to know, but he doesn’t make them too insightful or anything. It is what makes them real. There is a moment when Deets’s name is to be carved onto the Hat Creek Cattle Co. sign and Gus admonishes him that most people have two names.

Excerpt:
“Well, Deets, you just got one name,” Augustus said.”Most people got two. Maybe you’ve got two and just forgot one of them.”
Deets sat around thinking for a day or two, but he could not remember ever having another name, and Call’s recollection bore him out. At that point even Augustus began to think that the sign was more trouble than it was worth, since it was turning out to be so hard to please everyone. The only solution was to think up another name to go with Deets, but while they were debating various possibilities, Deets’s memory suddenly cleared.
“Josh,” he said, one night after supper, to the surprise of everyone. “Why, I’m Josh. Can you write that Mr. Gus?”
“Josh is short for Joshua,” Augustus said.”I can write either one of them. Joshua’s the longest.”
“Write the longest,” Deets said.”I’m too busy for a short name.”

Lorena is the sole whore of Lonesome Dove. Abused and exploited by various men since she was a girl, Lorie ends up in Lonesome Dove at the Dry Bean Saloon. She’s a kind of hopeless character, tired of whoring, but not wanting to marry because of her bad taste in men. She would like to get to San Francisco, where whores can make a lot of cash, but until Jake Spoon arrives in town, she doesn’t see any way to get there.

So along comes the no-good outlaw Jake. He has recently killed a man (accidentally) and has come to Lonesome Dove to look up his old friends and fellow Texas Rangers. He is charming, reckless and thoughtless. He treats the beautiful Lorie nicely, so that she falls in love for a time, but when she wants him to take her away, Jake ignores her and begins to think shes getting a bit too serious.

When Jake starts talking about Montana and how there’s still wild land up there and wild times to be had, Woodrow Call gets excited (even though he’s very subtle about it) and he decides to drive cattle the 2500 miles to Montana and take a bunch of guys along – most of them teenagers and, sadly, the bulk of them don’t know squat about driving cattle.

For Woodrow and Augustus, Texas Rangering life is over. The West of their youth is finished with the railroad bringing more and more people every day. The only life they have ever known, finding enemies and killing them to protect settlers has ended, and Call, not the over-analytical type, feels sad without really knowing why. Here is the moment when one of their enemies of thirty years, Pedro Flores, has suddenly died. I like this bit because it shows the dynamic between Gus and Call, and highlights Gus’s teasing sense of humor.

Excerpt:
To Augustus’s surprise, Call sat down on the porch and took a big swallow from the jug. He felt curious – not sick, but suddenly empty – it was the way a kick in the stomach could make you feel. It was an odd thing, but true, that the death of an enemy could affect you almost as much as the death of a friend. He had experienced it before, when news reached them that Kicking Wolf was dead. Some young soldier on his second patrol had made a lucky shot and killed him, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos – and Kicking Wolf had kept two companies of Rangers busy for twenty years. Killed by a private. Call had been shoeing a horse when Pea brought him that piece of news, and he had felt so empty for a spell that he had to put off finishing the job.
That had been ten years ago, and he and Gus soon quit rangering. So far as Call was concerned, the death of Kicking Wolf meant the end of the Comanches, and thus the end of their real job…
…”I didn’t know you liked that old bandit so much,” Augustus said.
“I didn’t like him,” Call said. “I just didn’t expect him to die.”
“He probably never expected it neither,” Augustus said.”He was a rough old cob.”
After a few minutes, the empty feeling passed, but Call didn’t get to his feet. The sense that he needed to hurry, which had been with him most of his life, had disappeared for a space.
“We might as well go on to Montana,” he said. “The fun’s over around here.”
Augustus snorted, amused by the way his friend’s mind worked.
“Call, there never was no fun around here,” he said. “And besides, you never had no fun in your life. You wasn’t made for fun. That’s my department.”
“I used the wrong word, I guess,” Call said.
“Yes, but why did you?” Augustus said.”That’s the interesting part.”
Call didn’t feel like getting drawn into an argument, so he kept quiet.
“First you’ve run out of Indians, now you’ve run out of bandits, that’s the point,” Augustus said. “You’ve got to have somebody to outwit, don’t you?”
“I don’t know why I need anybody when I’ve got you,” Call said.
“I don’t see why we just don’t take over northern Mexico, now that Pedro’s dead,” Augustus said. “It’s just down the dern street. I’m sure there’s still a few folks down there who’d give you a fight.”
“I don’t need a fight,” said Call. “It won’t hurt us to make some money.”
“It might,” Augustus said. “I might drown in the Republican River, like the Pumphrey boy. Then you’d get all the money. You wouldn’t even know how to have fun with it. You’d probably use it to buy gravestones for old bandits you happened to like.”

Gathering together their men and their cows, the guys set out for Montana. They make their way through rivers and valleys and pass by towns of ill repute. The young boys get a taste of the whores and whiskey and Augustus and Call find that their names, once legendary, have been mostly forgotten with the new influx of settlers. They face tough deaths and decisions along the way, losing man after man to one tragic situation after the other. There are moments here that shock and dismay, but that’s what McMurtry does. He doesn’t have characters act the way you think they should. He has them act the way they do.

Lorie, who comes along with Jake but then gets bailed on by that scoundrel, is kidnapped by a particularly evil Indian named Blue Duck, who delights in torture and killing for fun. Gus goes after her and rescues her, forming a bond between he and Lorie for the rest of the book.

Traumatized by her kidnap, Lorena falls in love with Augustus and acts like a wounded puppy the rest of the time she’s with him. She has been raped repeatedly, tortured, nearly scalped, starved and beaten for days, and it leaves her this broken woman, cowering from any man but Gus.

Unfortunately for Lorie, Gus has his own agenda as well. (I mean, does anyone think that Gus really loved Lorie? Or that he just felt sorry for her?)
Despite his many marriages, he’s been in love with the same woman his entire life. Clara Allen (whom he loved “the hardest and the deepest”)lives with her dying husband and young daughters in Nebraska. Since Gus is passing by, he’s determined to stop and see her. The two have a reunion of sorts, with Gus promising to come back after he’s reached Montana and gotten Call settled. He leaves Lorie with Clara and goes off with Call, continuing on their way to Montana.

I love Clara from the instant I meet her. Gus berates her for marrying another man, but she tells him that she couldn’t have faced worrying about him day and night while he went off to fight Indians with his true love, Woodrow Call. (Can someone say Bromance?)

She detests Call as the sort of man who can’t feel anything for family life and is unnatural in his emotional unavailability. Despite losing Gus, she’s made rational choices and created a good life for herself. I admire her fortitude and common sense. When she takes Lorie in, she feels jealous of the bond she sees between Gus and the girl, but her kind heart and sympathy overwhelm such petty emotions and Clara opens her home to the former prostitute to give her the sanctuary she needs. Clara also advises Gus to stay with them, and not go off chasing adventure when he’s too old. But Augustus is loyal to Woodrow and so off they go.

This book is about love. It is about friendship and having someone’s back. It is about owning up to your human failings, and going off on adventures. It is a love story. An adventure story. A tragedy. A comedy. Ultimately the characters live on, even after most of them die senselessly. McMurty always points out the senselessness of death by rotten mistakes. He points out the unfairness of life. He doesn’t gloss it over for you, but he also highlights the things worth living for.

He reminds you of the times when you’ve been so deep down low that you can barely breathe from the pain of how difficult life can be – just living it – day after day.

But then he has you remember why you go on.

And maybe it’s his way of doing all of those things that never fail to both astound me and break my heart all at the same time.

At this point, I don’t want to spoil it by telling you how it all ends. I suppose I will just end this with the command to Read This Book because its really, really, really good.

And then, if you are like me, and weep when you come to the end because there is no more, you’ll be thrilled to know there are three more books about Augustus and Call. Three.

And I haven’t reviewed them yet.

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