Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Heroine's Harsh Journey

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Heroine's Harsh Journey

Article excerpt

This is a story about a long, perilous journey into the uncivilized heart of the West.

Actually, it's two stories. Larry McMurtry's "Boone's Lick" is one of the season's most eagerly awaited historical novels. It's also McMurtry's own journey back to a genre that had lost some interest for him. For fans, it's exactly where he should be.

In the recent past, McMurtry has lamented the undistinguished state of western literature, and has even suggested he'd like to move on to other times and places in his work. But McMurtry is a wanderer, and maybe no place (and no idea) beyond his hometown of Archer City, Texas, seems permanent. So, he has delivered a creditable new western novel about common folks in uncommon times.

It's 1866, and Mary Margaret Cecil lives in Boone's Lick, Mo., with her crusty old father, four children, and her brother-in-law, Seth. Her husband, Dick Cecil, is off in Wyoming, delivering freight for the new army outposts that guard white men's trails through sacred Indian lands. The restless Dick shows up in Boone's Lick every year or two, sticks around just long enough to impregnate Mary Margaret, then skedaddles west again.

When Mary Margaret decides there's more than that to a good marriage, she loads everyone up for a journey to find her wandering husband.

Along the way, they are joined by Mary's half sister Rosie, Boone's Lick's most alluring hooker; Father Villy, an itinerant frontier priest; and Charlie Seven Days, an intuitive Snake Indian.

McMurtry is a master of the casual tragedy. As the family forges west, first by riverboat, then by rickety wagon, their tribulations multiply. Grandpa Crackenthorpe is swept off the flatboat in a river squall, lost forever; Indians haunt the trekkers; cold and snow threaten to snuff them out; and they find the butchered remains of white men who have tried to traverse these badlands. In a single scene, the family wagon throws a wheel, a grizzly bear attacks, and the baby falls out of the wagonbox into a cactus patch. …

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