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. Yet Mary Margaret pushes on, sometimes cold, sometimes irrational in her single-minded quest to "quit" Dick Cecil face to face.
Her mission ends at Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, on the eve of the Fetterman Massacre, the final tragedy before Mary's liberation.
The tale is narrated by the teenager Sherman "Shay" Cecil, Mary's eldest son, who is old enough to understand his mother's determination, but too young to share it. All he knows is that the journey will lead them into a new life.
McMurtry's fictional characters are the salt of the earth, but he peppers this book with enough authentic figures to pique the history buff's interest.
A saturnine Wild Bill Hickok rides with Uncle Seth and the boys to roust some outlaws near Boone's Lick; the doomed Col. William Fetterman is an imperious ass who butts heads with Mary Margaret twice before he rides off into ignominy; the Sioux warrior Red Cloud would rather make speeches than war.
Others - Buffalo Bill, Sacajawea, Jim Bridger, General Sherman, and Geronimo, to mention a few - drift through the lives of the fictional characters, just to remind us that this little story unfolds against the vast canvas of westward expan sion.
This is the first in a new series by McMurtry. His past series have always debuted with masterpieces. "Boone's Lick" isn't frontier mytho-fluff, but neither is it "Lonesome Dove." It's no lame rite-of-passage yarn, but neither is it "The Last Picture Show."
"Boone's Lick" is its own kind of myth, a heroine's journey. That it echoes McMurtry's own journeys, described so eloquently in his recent ruminations, "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen" and "Roads," makes it all the more appealing.
Ron Franscell's latest novel is "The Deadline" (Write Way). He lives in Gillette, Wyoming.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society