Lonsome Dove: Metaphor Analysis
Aus Frank’s Bones
In a July 2010 interview for a Texas Monthly article celebrating the 25th anniversary of Lonesome Dove, McMurtry commented on the novel’s critique of the mythologizing of the old West, including of the use and abuse of the land: “By 1884 the plains were already overgrazed. We killed the right animal, the buffalo, and brought in the wrong animal, wetland cattle” (130). Aus Frank and his piles of buffalo bones become a grim and odd metaphor for this last act. Frank himself is an odd man, angry that the rules of town life worked against him and taking refuge in one of the last vast, unsettled areas of Texas—the plains. Yet even here, where the risk of Indian attack is still all too real, the impact of settlement is seen in the rampant slaughter of the buffalo. (Later in the novel, when Gus comes upon small herds of buffalo by the Yellowstone River, he chases them just so that he can say he did it—while it still could be done, readers intuit.)
Aus has taken on the task of gathering the bleached bones of buffalo killed, most likely, for their pelts and piling them great pyramids by the Canadian River. So far, Aus has constructed five such pyramids; several tons of bones make up each tall pile. As Gus leaves Aus’s camp, he notes that Aus has “plenty to work with, for . . . a road of bones stretched far across the plain.” Gus remembers his rangering days, when he and Call were rarely of sight of great numbers of buffalo and sometimes had trouble sleeping for the noise. The sight of the “ungrazed” plains, littered with bones, is “a shock” for Gus and a clear symbol for the rapacious nature of westward progress.
Hell Bitch serves more than one metaphorical function in the novel. The smart, strong mare is an exemplar of the natural world that, throughout the novel, threatens the crew. Nature in Lonesome Dove is unpredictable and powerful. A calm summer day suddenly dims, and lightning kills cattle and a hand. An easy river crossing turns deadly when a rare grouping of snakes is disturbed and attacked. At no point can the crew stop considering what natural threats will occur next. Hell Bitch is like a small bit of nature that is, more or less, under Call’s control. Fast and beautiful, she draws the eye of any man who knows horses; Call repeatedly refuses outrageous requests to buy her. Wily and watchful, she is always waiting for the chance to get free of Call—a trait he respects, as he respects storms, rivers, hail, snow, and every other hazard of the outdoors. He has survived this long, and kept the men he leads relatively safe, because he respects the beautiful yet pitiless natural world.
Hell Bitch comes to represent also a more personal aspect of Call: his pride. He is proud of his ability to manage her and proud that other men see him as a superb horseman. But that pride deepens as Newt proves his own talent for managing horses. Late in the novel, after Gus’s death especially, the only joy Call finds in life is watching proudly as Newt works with the horses. Unable to say the words Newt wants to hear, he gives his son Hell Bitch as a testimony to his pride in the young man Newt has become. The horse he would give up to no other man and whom only he is allowed to ride becomes his legacy to his son. Sadly, though Call feels the gift deeply (and tells Clara so when he delivers Gus’s letter), Newt rides away on Hell Bitch in despair.
Much of the novel describes the creation and function of a community. Lonesome Dove has its community—its notables such as Xavier Wanz, its families and organizations. But the central community in the novel is the Hat Creek outfit. Even before Call begins hiring the crew for the drive, the core of the Hat Creek outfit exists in Call, Gus, Pea Eye, Deets, Newt, and Bolivar, whose ritual of beating an old bell with a crowbar to announce the end of the workday is a tradition that comforts him while irritating Call, the least social of the crew. Regardless of the tasks each man is at work on, Bol’s bell signals the reunion of the crew around the table for dinner and on the porch for conversation. It can be heard in town and across the river, a summons to community.
Bol tries the drive but abandons it to return to Lonesome Dove after the accident with the wagon. He fears that if he leaves Texas, he will miss the company of his daughters. But even as he rides away, Bol senses that he is leaving his real community behind, and he is correct. Without the crew, Bol “grew lonely, and could not remember who he had been.” When, at the end of the novel, Call returns to Lonesome Dove, Bol is ringing the bell in the evening, as he has done since his return, but no one has responded. When Bol sees Call, he sobs with relief; his loneliness is over now that the Capit·n has answered the summons and restored, even a little, their community and Bol’s self-definition.
Readers may feel that the tiny town of Lonesome Dove, days’ ride from a sizable town or even from decent shade, is an example of the frontier. But for Gus and Call, Lonesome Dove is hardly wild. The saloon and church share a real piano. The town has a dentist. Outlaws rarely trouble the townspeople, and the threat of Indian attack has passed. Little Lonesome Dove and, to a greater extent, towns like San Antonio and Fort Worth represent civilization, and their presence, with their buildings and outlying settlements, chafes Gus and Call. Montana, for them, is still wilderness—still the untamed frontier.
Call and Gus define themselves largely by the work they did as Texas Rangers. When the novel opens, Call is restless and Gus has little to do but talk—their work in Texas is done, and, as the bar incident in San Antonio proves, forgotten by those it benefited. It is not land or wealth that compels Call to undertake the drive to Montana; it is the adventure, the risks, the chance to do the work they loved again that beckons him. Gus, though he questions the venture during the drive, admits to Newt what he will not tell Call: He is deeply glad he took the journey.
The myth and history of the West depend largely on the presence of a frontier—an untamed land where heroic behavior can be put to the test. As Clara says, Montana is “no place for a lady.” In that sense, Montana is the stand-in for an America yet to be shaped. Call stops the drive not because he wants to, but because Hugh Auld informs him that if he goes further north, he will be in Canada—beyond the frontier of the nation.