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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Berrybender Narratives by Larry McMurtry

The Wandering Hill, By Sorrows River, Folly and Glory by Larry McMurtry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003, 2003, 2004, respectively. ISBNS: 0-7432-3303-4, 0-7432-3304-2, 0-4732-3305-0.

These three books comprise the rest of Larry McMurtry’s "Berrybender Narratives," the first of which I wrote about last December. I read the first two on the airplane, coming and going from the American Library Association’s annual conference held in Chicago the last week of June. The last installment was my stationary exercise bike book for the past several weeks.

Why do I bother you, my hypothetical reader, with this seemingly irrelevant personal information? Because it provides one way for me to gauge just how compelling I found these narratives. During my obligatory 30 minutes on the bike, each morning, I generally force myself to engage in 5 one-minute sprints, spaced every five minutes. So I do one at 25 minutes, one at 20 minutes, 15, 10, and 5 minutes, respectively. With most books, I look down from my reading every little bit to see if I’m approaching the next sprinting session. But with this book, I have to confess, I frequently got so caught up in the narrative that I’d forget to glance down, and would find myself 30 seconds beyond my sprint start time before I realized it was time.

Nevertheless, despite their ability to draw me in, invariably the sign of good writing, good storyline, or both, it remained a kind of guilty pleasure. For if there is one thread that runs through this series of westerns, it is the gratuitous, casual, and frequent deaths that never stop. People keep dying, or getting killed, often gruesomely, frequently with little or no rhyme or reason. Indians kill some, often brutally. Others die from fever or cholera, or by accident.

In my writeup of the first volume in the series, I suggested that the aristocratic protagonists of the story, the Berrybender family, remained largely unmoved by the carnage. This isn’t really so, and especially by the end of the final volume, when several of their young children, born along the way, die no less senselessly than the rest, Tasmin, the oldest of the Berrybender offspring, and mother to three, having lost two of them, is suffering from severe depression and a sense of futility, and so are several of the others from their party, though to a lesser degree.

There seems to be no point to these deaths, other than to demonstrate the inherent brutality of that period of western history, those mythical few years between the journey of Lewis & Clark and the final subduing of the Indians and settling of the West by the whites. There isn’t even any denouement or conclusion of any significance at the end of the fourth and final book. The story just kinds of trails off, and stops, for no apparent reason, other than the fact that the remnants of the party are breaking up, some heading back for Europe or other “civilized” areas, others not.

Definitely recommended, especially for McMurtry fans, but you’d better have a strong stomach if you’re going to undertake this epic journey with the Berrybender tribe.


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