(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1646 words.)