74 pages 2 hours read

Larry Mcmurtry

Lonesome Dove

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


Lonesome Dove is a 1985 novel by American author Larry McMurtry. Chronologically, it is the third book in the Lonesome Dove series, although it was published before its two prequels, Dead Man’s Walk (1995) and Comanche Moon (1997). One of the most celebrated novels in the Western genre, Lonesome Dove tells the story of former Texas Rangers Augustus (Gus) McRae and Woodrow Call (Call) as they take a herd of cattle on an ill-fated drive from Texas to Montana. The cattle drive serves as the backdrop for McMurtry’s exploration of loyalty, freedom, family, and the brutality of the American West.

Lonesome Dove received major critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was also adapted into a popular miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

Content Warning: Lonesome Dove depicts sexual assault, graphic violence, and characters with racist biases, and contains offensive stereotypes of Indigenous American characters. These topics are pervasive in the text and appear in most summary and analysis sections of this guide.

Plot Summary

The novel unfolds in three parts set in the late 1870s. In Part 1, Gus, Call, and their men have been running a small cattle outfit in the tiny border town of Lonesome Dove, Texas, since they left the Texas Rangers. The return of Jake Spoon, another former Ranger, sets events in motion that make Call want to take a herd to Montana. Jake is on the run from the law after killing a dentist—an accident, he claims—whose brother was the sheriff. Once Jake describes Montana’s beauty, and the fortune to be made, Call can’t let go of the idea to drive cattle there. He has been restless in Lonesome Dove and wants to have another adventure before he dies.

Over the next few nights, the group stocks their herd by crossing the Mexican border and stealing cattle from a bandit named Pedro Flores. Once they have enough cattle, they leave Lonesome Dove with their crew, which includes Newt, a young man who may be Call’s son. Newt’s mother is most likely Maggie, a sex worker—called “sporting girls” in the novel—but Call has never acknowledged Newt as his son. They are accompanied by Lonesome Dove’s only sporting girl, a woman named Lorena. Lorena soon becomes infatuated with Jake.

In Part 2, a sheriff named July Johnson—the brother-in-law of the man Jake killed—sets out to capture Jake. He takes his stepson, Joe, with him. A bandit named Blue Duck abducts Lorena and sells her to several Indigenous American warriors, who treat her harshly. Gus rescues her, but Blue Duck escapes and kills July’s son, his deputy, and a girl who had been traveling with them.

Part 3 introduces Clara Allen, Gus’s love interest. She is a formidable rancher who has seen great tragedy, including the loss of three sons and a grave brain injury to her husband. She helps deliver the baby of July’s wife, Elmira, then takes in July and his infant son after Elmira leaves them. When Gus’s group arrives in Montana, he and Clara enjoy their time together, but he moves on after she refuses to marry him. Tragedy follows quickly. While scouting the land, Gus is attacked by a group of Indigenous American warriors and shot in the leg with an arrow. He makes it back to town but refuses to let the surgeons save his life by amputating his leg. Gus’s dying wish is that Call returns his body for burial in Texas. Call does so, but the journey costs him most of what mattered to him and returns him to where he started.

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