Synopsis from jacket flap: Here at last is the eagerly awaited story of the early days of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the heroes of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, LONESOME DOVE.
In STREETS OF LAREDO, McMurtry brought the story ahead, giving us Call in his old age; now, in DEAD MAN'S WALK, he takes the reader back, to the days when Gus and Call – two of the most beloved figures in American fiction – were young Texas Rangers, first experiencing the wild frontier that will form their characters. We also meet Clara Forsythe, the spirited, unforgettable young woman whose effect on Gus McCrae is immediate and unshakable. Danger, sacrifice, and fear test these two young men to the limits of endurance; friendship, comradeship, and love give them the strength and courage to survive against almost insurmountable odds in the West of the early nineteenth century.
In DEAD MAN'S WALK, Gus and Call are not yet twenty, young men coming of age in the days when Texas was still an independent republic. Enlisting as Texas Rangers under the command of Caleb Cobb, a capricious land pirate who wants to seize Santa Fe from the Mexicans, Gus and Call experience their first great plains, in which arbitrary violence is the rule – whether from nature, or from the Indians whose territory they must cross in order to reach New Mexico.
Through the eyes of Gus and Call, we come to know a group of engaging adventurers, and we meet the great, ferocious Comanche war chief Buffalo Hump (one of McMurtry's most vivid characters); his squat companion, Kicking Wolf, a brilliant horse thief; and the shadowy Apache kidnapper Gomez. It is these enigmatic figures – cruel, swift, and close to invisible – who, together with the harsh terrain of their native land, combine to defeat Cobb's expedition, as well as a major contingent of the Mexican army.
Gus and Call's companions include Matilda Roberts, a colorful whore known as “The Great Western”, and Bigfoot Wallace, one of the most famous scouts of his time. We join them all on their foolhardy expedition to Santa Fe, and on their terrifying return across the Jornado Del Muerto: the “Dead Man's Walk.” The surviving Rangers face death in an unexpected form, when we meet Lady Carey, an English noblewoman who takes them – and the reader – to the startling climax.
The untamed frontier, and the reckless men who live there – the Indians defending it with unrelenting savagery, the Texans attempting to seize and “civilize” it, and the Mexicans threatened by both – are at the heart of Larry McMurtry's extraordinary new novel: at once a riveting adventure story and a powerful work of literature.
Stats for my copy: Hardback, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
How acquired: Bought.
First line: Matilda Jane Roberts was naked as the air.
My thoughts: LONESOME DOVE is one of my all time favorite books ever. It's one of those books that stayed with me long after I turned the last page. STREETS OF LAREDO wasn't as good, but was still very worth reading. DEAD MAN'S WALK falls right in between them. It's better than Streets, but not quite on a par with Dove. Which translates to I loved it and highly recommend it.
In DEAD MAN'S WALK we meet Gus and Call as young men, joining up with the Rangers and embarking on their first big adventure. A lot of the reviews I read on Goodreads complained or mentioned that Gus and Call don't really do anything in the book, that all the action occurs around them, that they're more like bystanders than active protagonists. But I didn't notice that at all, and even after reading those reviews and thinking back, I still don't agree. (And this is one reason I wait until after I've finished a book before I read reviews about it. No pre-conceivances – is that a word? - going into it.)
As with the other books, there are lots of characters, mostly new to us, but some familiar names as well. Particularly Clara, who was Gus McCrae's the-one-who-got-away. She's a feisty outspoken storekeeper's daughter, and while Call couldn't understand why, after barely meeting her, Gus is talking about quitting rangering to marry her, I thought she was delightful. But fortunately for the story Gus has committed himself to the Rangers and has to leave Clara behind.
Clara is in the first part of the book, and an English lady becomes rather important in the last part. But the only female who figures throughout the story is Matilda, a whore (with the proverbial heart of gold) who travels with the Rangers in the hopes of eventually getting to California. Along the way she falls for the scout Shadrach, and as the hardships pile up she takes Call and Gus under her wing (but not into her bedroll – she gives for Shadrach). She was one of my favorite characters.
There's lots of violence, as the Rangers come up against both Indians and the Mexican army. Call often laments their lack of true leadership as the group of Rangers dwindles from 200 to double digits, and you could practically see his own future leadership qualities being born. Gus constantly talks about wanting a whore and finding some whores. The two boys are as different as night and day, but they're comradeship is always front and center,and they remain loyal to each other even when they disagree or irk each other. Once this expedition is over and everyone is safely home (or at least back in Texas), it wouldn't be surprising to see them go their separate ways, but their friendship is sealed, and I can't wait to get into COMANCHE MOON, the last book in this series.
And on a side note, some websites have the books listed as this one being Book 1, with Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo being books 3 and 4. Which chronologically for the characters makes sense, but since Dove and Streets were written and published first, I consider them Books 1 and 2, and that's how I'm classifying them.