Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646
Boone’s Lick, the twenty-third novel by Larry McMurtry, invites comparisons with other literary pieces, including McMurtry’s classicLonesome Dove (1985) about the adventures and dangers facing a motley assortment of characters driving cattle from Texas to Montana. In this novel, the characters are even more assorted—a grandfather bordering on the senile, a barefoot French missionary, and a Shoshone guide on a mission for Sacagawea—but the journey is the same as the travelers pick up roots and travel miles away from their point of departure. In Boone’s Lick, that point of departure for the Cecil family is Boone’s Lick, Missouri, and the destination is Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. The ostensible reason for this journey is to provide strong-willed Mary Margaret, the mother of the family, the opportunity to tell her husband, face-to-face, that she is quitting him. Along the way, she invites others to join her pilgrimage. Like Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), she is undaunted by the variety of guests who accompany her. Like Huck Finn, she is not fazed by the challenges of navigating many roads, including the river roads, to accomplish her goal. She has survived the deaths of many family members who are buried in Boone’s Lick, and she loses her father as she travels west. However, these losses do not sap her energies; on the contrary, they appear to embolden this strong woman.
Though Mary Margaret is clearly the focal point of this fiction, she does not narrate the story. Instead, McMurtry chooses her fifteen-year-old son Sherman, known as “Shay,” to be the storyteller. He describes the events he witnesses and experiences from a distance that suits an adolescent trying to make sense of extraordinary occurrences and remarkable people who are larger than life. Indeed, from the beginning, Shay struggles to understand many things, from his Uncle Seth’s statement about weather—“A thunderhead or two don’t hurt, but too much cloudy weather makes people restless and mean, females particularly”—to his mother’s killing a horse, saying that she thought it was an elk. Neither the statement about weather nor the action of killing the horse and its rationale make sense to Shay. Subsequent statements and actions present even greater challenges to the youthful observer.
He unravels his story in three parts: “Mules,” “The Holy Road,” and “The Holy Hills.” Part 1 focuses on Boone’s Lick immediately after the Civil War. Mary Margaret is trying to keep her family together without her husband Dick who has gone out West, returning every year or so, leaving her pregnant and alone after each visit. Having buried four sons, Mary Margaret cares for her two boys, Shay and G. T.; her infant daughter, Marcy; her older daughter, Neva; and her nearly senile father, Granpa Crackenthorpe. Dick’s brother, Uncle Seth, rounds out the homestead, having been left in charge of the Cecil family by his itinerant brother. A former Union sharpshooter who shot off his kneecap the day after the Civil War ended, Seth has always been in love with Mary Margaret; loyal to his brother, however, he conceals his affection for her as he assists her in trying to provide for the family in Boone’s Lick.
The challenges for survival are enormous, starting with the fundamental challenge of feeding the family in the wake of the ravages of the Civil War. Killing a horse—even though the sheriff was riding it—is one way that Mary Margaret deals with the challenge. In graphic detail, Shay describes preparing the dead horse for cooking and eating, all the while worrying that his mother’s assertion that it was an elk might mean that she is dishonest or delusional, either option undermining his belief that she is the most perfect person in the world. His uncle’s explanation featuring an Indian story about the spirit of an elk being transferred to the horse is little help to Shay, but he is not able to be single-minded about the dilemma. A major distraction appears in the guise of a posse made up of the Cecil boys, Uncle Seth, the sheriff who had been on the ill-fated horse, and Wild Bill Hickok. They travel to a nearby town to defeat a terrorizing group of marauders. That adventure, including an encounter with a bear, closes the chapter on life at Boone’s Lick. Deciding that she needs to find Dick, Mary Margaret gathers the family together to depart Missouri, collecting two passengers early on: an Indian called Charlie Seven Days and a French priest, Father Emile Villegagnon, known as Father Villy. The destination is unclear but the goal, it turns out, is simple and clear for Mary Margaret: She aims to quit her husband.
Part 2, “The Holy Road,” takes the entourage along the Oregon Trail. On land and on the river, the group meets perils of all sorts: treacherous weather as they travel by flatboat, wagon breakdowns as they travel on land, and encounters with Indians—Pawnees led by an Indian called Nose Turns Down and Sioux warriors led by Red Cloud. Shay begins this part of the narration in typical adolescent fashion, announcing his excitement: “We were finally on our way upriver, headed for a big adventure.” Little does he know that the adventure will be fraught with such danger.
The regularity of the danger, however, is offset by the delightful eccentricities of the travelers, especially Father Villy, one of the most colorful characters in the book. When the family first meets the French priest, he is seated by the side of the road, removing tacks from his feet as a result of traveling barefoot. A man whose chuckle comes out of the depths of his belly—“like a sound made far underground”—Father Villy is bound for Siberia, having taken a vow to walk the earth. When he accepts Mary Margaret’s invitation to travel with the Cecil family as far as Wyoming, he decides that “a wagon seat is not too far above the earth,” and, furthermore, he can jump down if he sees a soul to whom he should minister. The priest’s personality lights up the journey, starting with his face: “When the big priest smiled it was like sunlight shining through a haystack: his whole beard moved, and he had a lot of beard.” He also has the propensity to swim nude, a habit that seems shocking at first, but, as the travels continue, is less stunning than the shock the family experiences when they finally arrive at the first fort in the West.
This temporary sojourn signals the end of the second part of the book and introduces the final part, “The Holy Hills,” and the shocking secret Dick had been keeping from his family—his Missouri family, that is. Mary Margaret learns that her husband has at least two Indian families, a discovery that strengthens her resolve to quit him. When she finds him, she makes that announcement, which could have been the end of Shay’s story. However, McMurtry is too adept at storytelling to allow such a neat ending. Instead he adds the bloody 1866 Fetterman Massacre, in which the Sioux and the Cheyenne attack soldiers in retaliation for violating their sacred lands. Related in the same graphic detail as the killing and cooking of the horse in the first chapter, this massacre still is not the end of the story, for this tale is finally not about endings. Instead, Shay’s concluding words are about the family’s beginnings, commencements made as a result of their adventure to the West.
Neva stays in the West, learning the Sioux language and becoming an interpreter for Red Cloud, the Sioux whom the family had encountered en route. She becomes a famous writer, publishing a book about the mistreatment of the red man by the whites, marries numerous times, and keeps up with her father’s Indian wives and children who total, she surmises, seventeen. Dick also stays in the West, and Shay notes that the two visit often. Mary Margaret and Seth marry and “[quarrel] their way through nearly fifty more years of life.” Becoming wealthy from a modest farm on which they struck oil, they build a mansion in St. Louis, raise Marcy, who becomes an opera star, six of Neva’s children, and two children of Mary Margaret’s half sister Aunt Rosie. G. T. becomes an embittered fanatic, standing on street corners ranting about hellfire. Shay becomes a lawyer and judge.
These beginnings, Shay notes, underscore and echo the unanswered questions he began to ponder at the opening of his story:
Look at our family, the Cecils. You could argue that the main story started the day Ma shot Sheriff Baldy Stone’s horse, under the mistaken impression that it was an elk—but that was just a point on the map of our life as a family. Did Ma always prefer Uncle Seth to Pa? Did Pa wander the west for years, hoping his brother would relieve him of his outspoken wife? Did Uncle Seth mean from the first to steal his brother’s wife? Did they all three know what they were doing, or half know, or just blunder on?
Shay ends this reflection by saying that he has pondered these questions for years, but he still cannot “phrase it out tidily, like you need to do with cases in the courts of law.” In true McMurtry fashion, this novel is not tidy, and the questions are not answered with certainty. It is delightful—a journey with people whose humanity and eccentricity are as memorable as a little town in Missouri called Boone’s Lick.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 2000, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2000, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (November 26, 2000): 16.
Publishers Weekly 247 (September 25, 2000): 86.
The Washington Post, December 1, 2000, p. C08.
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