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Not McMurtry's best, but fun to read anyway
on February 21, 2005
McMurtry's "westerns" are usually big sprawling sages, brimming with great characters, over-flowing with plot developments, packed with humor and tragedy. They make you feel the openness of America's west. In such novels as Dead Man's Walk or The Berrybender Narratives, we get a sense of what the west was like just as white men began to explore it. We see it through the eyes of simple folk, usually, as well as through the Indians. We understand how each side views the other. We understand how cruel the land and circumstance can be.
Other books, such as Streets of Laredo, show the west as still wild but becoming ever more tame. The Indians are less and less of a threat, towns are growing, the "wild" people who inhabited the land are feeling cramped. The buffalo and beaver are gone.
BUFFALO GIRLS fits into the latter category. But the books I mentioned above are different in a couple of key ways. 1) they are longer and more ambitious in scope, 2) paradoxically, the feel more controlled and unified in vision. BUFFALO GIRLS has a smaller cast than most McMurtry sagas, and the time frame covered (except for a hasty final couple of chapters) is fairly short. Yet by the end we feel as though we've kinda slopped all over the place.
Don't get me wrong, there is much to admire. Good characters (Calamity Jane is the "hero" of the book, but she often takes a back seat in the narrative, almost completely disappearing for chapters at a time) are here. Especially good is No Ears, the elderly Indian who remembers the old times and now has no real place among his own kind, so he hangs on with Jane and her male friends...old trappers, scouts and early settlers. He's well thoughout out, sympathetic and funny. We also have Dora DuFran, Jane's great friend who runs a saloon/brothel, and her long-time love, Blue, a man she shares great passions with, but can't get him to marry her. Another key character is Buffalo Bill. The book shows us how his famous show is put together, and paints Bill as a sympathic character.
The best part of the book comes in the middle. Jane and her friends, including No Ears, sign on to the Wild West show, and take an ocean voyage to England. Their experiences in England are terrific fun...well-written, imaginative and full of unexpected turns. There are some scenes at the London Zoo, of all places, that are lovely.
So, while the book has much to offer, it is also weighed down by a nearly constant state of sadness. All the characters are constantly thinking about their own deaths. Some DO die, of course, it wouldn't be a McMurtry book otherwise. But there's a mood of deep despair over the book, and while I admire McMurtry for creating this mood, it isn't always the most pleasant thing to endure. I found that unlike many of his other books, this one wasn't hard to put down. It's heavy going, because of the mood, and McMurtry's somewhat slopping pacing. When you're done, you feel like you've read a book twice as long.
I do recommend the book for fans of McMurtry. Even his lesser efforts are worthwhile. However, if you're new to McMurtry and want to try him...don't start here. Try the Lonesome Dove sage, preferably from the first book. You won't be sorry you did.