Author: Larry McMurtry
Mood: If you feel mopey and existential and want to read about a bunch of people who are literally living through the end of an era to put your own stuff in perspective.
I have to start this review with an apology – I never read a Larry McMurtry book until Buffalo Girls.
I know, right? How do you get by as a Western fan, with a review website, and not have read one of the biggest names in Western fiction?
- Fun Fact: In my 2019 review of Lonesome Dove (the movie) I promised to read the book, and I still haven’t done it
But that right there is the problem. I haven’t spent nearly as much time READING Westerns as I have watching them.
For starters, you can pop on a movie any night of the week. But even a great book – and trust, this is a great f*cking book – is going to take a lot longer to consume.
I also didn’t start reading Western novels until three years ago. I’ve explained this before in other reviews: I always thought they looked cheesy and kind of dumb. It wasn’t until my late father-in-law introduced me to The Sacketts that I realized there was good stuff lurking beneath those tragic covers!
Now that I’ve made the appropriate excuses, can we talk about this amazing book?
Buffalo Girls is a heartbreakingly beautiful novelization of the last days of the Old West.
That sounds pretentious, but I’m totally serious. My heart did actually hurt.
It’s mostly narrated by Calamity Jane, but features rich characters ranging from real figures (Buffalo Bill Cody, madam Dora DuFran, Sitting Bull, Texas Jack Omahundro, Annie Oakley) to those so achingly well-written that you wish they existed (No Ears, Bartle Bone, Jim Ragg).
Right away, you’re gripped by tones of sadness and disillusionment. This isn’t the heyday of the main characters. They aren’t out living their best lives on the trail, or shooting up saloons. They’re getting old, some even believing they’ve mistakenly held onto life for too long. They crave the West of their youths, but are stuck in a settled West that has no place for their ways.
Bartle and Jim are beaver trappers, but haven’t seen beaver in over ten years. Calamity is a misunderstood drunken wanderer, no surprises there (especially for Deadwood fans). Dora is heartsick over T. Blue, who married another woman but can’t quite quit his true love. No Ears believes that death is coming for him, and wants to make the most of his stolen time.
Most of the main characters join up with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and sail to England to perform for the Queen. Much confusion and disillusionment ensues.
There are no pointless characters in Buffalo Girls. Although some of them don’t have leading perspectives, or are only featured briefly, they all have a strong impact on the story.
And WHAT A STORY, holy crap. This book took me through every emotion, over and over again.
McMurtry’s writing thoroughly brings to life time and place, while delivering a precisely perfect combination of plot points to make you feel like you’re on the most meaningful adventure of your life.
I can’t remember the last time a movie made me ugly cry as hard as I bawled while reading the last 100 or so pages of Buffalo Girls. Not even kidding, I was howling so hard that at one point my dog started barking in some kind of concerned protest.
But the really fantastic thing is that the story wrenches your guts without being a mushy romance or literary sort of book – it doesn’t bore the pants off you, it’s still a proper Western.
You definitely feel like you’re experiencing the Old West, albeit one with comprehensible dialogue. You’re just taken on a strange journey that’s narrated by the tired old inner monologues of these Western legends. You’re hearing their doubts, heartbreaks, and disappointments.
I fell head-over-heels for No Ears and Jim Ragg. I was living these characters night after night, eagerly awaiting the next time their POV took the lead.
And this was weird for me, because when I became aware of the Buffalo Girls movie it sounded like a tale of strong women. The DVD wouldn’t ship to my location, so it sat on my wishlist for ages – but I recently came across the book at a thrift store, and opened it expecting female-oriented stories.
There are plenty, don’t get me wrong. McMurtry is surprisingly good at writing women. I did eventually get caught up in Dora’s story, and Calamity is a brilliant character study.
But oh, does McMurtry do a good job of his aging mountain men and his pensive old Native American.
No Ears in particular is a brilliant piece of writing. His perspectives on white people, especially when they visit England, are so good that you can’t believe you’ve never asked yourself the same questions.
Every time I read a chapter featuring No Ears, I wanted to retreat into the wilderness and reflect on the puzzling qualities of animals. McMurtry did a great job of writing this man so that you didn’t look at him as primitive, and instead found his thoughts to be the most logical and important narratives in the book.
Jim Ragg, on the other hand, reminded me of all the aging Western readers whom I adored when I worked at a public library – and that deep sadness I had while watching old bronc busters struggle to find work in Monte Walsh. Ragg’s character above all others gave me that forlorn feeling of the end of an era. My heart felt like it was going to explode from all the feels when Ragg discovered beaver at a London zoo.
As with Western movies, I’m terrible about giving passes to some books that take major creative liberties, and being a stickler about others. At first my hackles went up when reading Buffalo Girls, because it seemed like a lot of myths about Calamity Jane were being perpetuated.
You have to stick with it to reach the payoff on that particular storyline, in the final pages. You also have to let go of the true stories of Dora DuFran, T. Blue, Jack Omahundro, Potato Creek Johnny, and Sitting Bull (he sounds way better in real life, giving his show earnings to homeless people). These characters are represented in a respectful way, but one that stretches many truths to bring them together.
I think I’m fine with it because these Western legends probably did feel disillusioned with life when everything settled down. I can believe that if Calamity Jane could write, she would have written these letters to her ‘daughter’.
I can also believe that there were TONS of people who were minor celebrities in their time, who watched the world lose interest in them completely. And the way this is written, you just feel every pain and sorrow of the people being faced with wannabe cowboys who never knew actual struggles.
Buffalo Girls is filled with fantastic descriptions, sharp insights, and engaging dialogue. I can see what the fuss is all about – McMurtry really is worthy of all the gushing reviews. I’m happy to add mine to the list.
I don’t know what else to say to convince you to read this book. Just do it. You will be glad that you did.