By Sorrow’s River

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Larry McMurtry’s By Sorrow’s River opens with the Berrybender party camped in the Valley of the Chickens, where they mingle with the mountain men gathered for their annual fur traders’ rendezvous. Much of the ensuing plot focuses on Tasmin Berrybender, married to Jim Snow (the fearless and fearsome “Sin Killer”) but absorbed in her passion for another mountain man, Pomp Charbonneau, whose sexual passivity annoys her terribly.

Tasmin’s pegleg father, the relentless lecher Lord Berrybender, finds that his persistent attentions to the company’s high-spirited cellist, Venetia Kennet, have trapped him into marrying her. The arrival—by balloon—of two journalists adds another comic theme. The Englishman Benjamin Hope-Tipping and the Frenchman Clam de Paty are both tracking the Sin Killer, hoping for sensational material for their newspapers.

Various Indians enliven the travelers’ daily lives. Takes Bones (The Ear Taker) sneaks up on sleeping victims and slices off an ear without waking them. The old Sioux called The Partezon broods over the end of a way of life with the white men’s coming, and The Bad Eye suffers a watery demise after smallpox destroys his village. One of Tasmin’s sisters claims the handsome Ute called High Shoulders as her own, and a trader in New Mexico, Willy Bent, enjoys the ministrations of a dutiful Cheyenne wife, Owl Woman.

At story’s end, the Berrybenders languish in the custody of the Mexican military. They have suffered human losses but still look toward the Promised Land of Santa Fe.