Hud Film Study

Hud is a 1962 black and white film based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By. There is a connection to children’s literature here — Patricia Neal who plays the housekeeper was Roald Dahl’s wife. Neal had a severe stroke not long after this film was made. Her recovery meant she had problems with language. The made-up vocabulary of The BFG was inspired by Patricia Neal’s strange communication style after her stroke.

 Hud is in many ways similar to Deliverance, appearing in American cinemas ten years later. 

  • Both are films based on novels
  • Written by white American men concerned with themes of masculinity
  • They both feature a stereotypical macho man whose bravado is also his downfall
  • Both feature a small group of men in a terrible situation, wrestling verbally with each other to make a moral decision
  • Each man of the group falls on a continuum from ruthless to morally upstanding
  • The morally upstanding character is destroyed by his compassion and ends up in the grave
  • While the macho man continues to ‘live’ but he has lost a part of himself, and his victory in getting his way is a pyrrhic one.
  • Both are anti-Redemption Stories: “Hud was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a “pure bastard”—and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.” (William Baer)

Stories of this type continue to intrigue writers and readers.

Jeffrey Eugenide’s first book of short stories, published 2017, is also about men struggling with how to behave:

It’s sort of, you’re caught in the middle of this thing, you want to redefine what it means to be a man in our time, and then going along with that has to involve a lot of self-exposure, and a lot of recrimination and regret for your behaviour. At the same time, there’s maybe some resistance to being told how you’re supposed to behave. So the characters are caught between being good and being bad. That makes for more energetic fiction, when you have someone of two minds trying to figure out a problem, as opposed to being really sure about his way and his conduct.


Genre Blend

Hud is not really a blend at all. Hud is a straight drama. You don’t find many of those on IMDb these days — most big films are a mixture of thriller/action/adventure and often with drama thrown in because of the character development.

At the time of release, Hud was said to be a contemporary Western. But here’s what the screenwriter’s response is to that:

BAER: Although Hud is clearly set in contemporary Texas, it’s often cited as one of the films that began the “demystification” of the American Western. It came out a year after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which John Ford began to re-examine the Western hero, and it predated the so-called “revisionist” Westerns of the later sixties, like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). I wonder how you feel about that?

RAVETCH: To be perfectly honest, I never thought of Hud as a Western. Never. I always thought of it as a domestic drama. Whenever I see Hud listed with Westerns, I wince. Not because I don’t admire Westerns—I wrote a number of them in my earlier days—but because I don’t feel the film is appropriate to that category.

Michigan Quarterly Review

The screenwriter, of course, is absolutely right. Hud is not a Western, nor is it even an anti-Western:

  • It doesn’t use the metaphorical symbol web of a Western and nor does it subvert those symbols to make an anti-Western.
  • It’s not about the taming of wilderness in order to build a home.
  • It’s not about expansion of a nation, or the destruction wreaked under said expansion.

On the other hand, I can see where people might get to thinking this is an anti-Western.

  • A Western has a lone warrior hero, leading a group of people to build a new village, and Hud seems like the ironic opposite of that guy.
  • It’s set in cowboy country, where death is all around them
  • There’s a category of Westerns set on a ranch, and the ranch comes under siege from outside forces.
  • There’s a life and death struggle and a pyrrhic victory.
  • Paul Newman starred in a bunch of Westerns and came to be associated with the genre. Larry McMurtry, too, also wrote anti-Westerns (later), as well as comical Western parodies, so was obviously influenced by the Western he grew up with when writing Horseman, Pass By.

Setting Of Hud


Hud opens with various pan shots of a small, rural town. This is the fictional Texas town of Thalia, based on the small town where Larry McMurtry grew up, surrounded by uncles like the men in this story. The Last Picture Show was also set in Thalia. 

hud railway crossing
Almost every small town has a railway crossing, but could this be symbolic? Crossroads symbolise changes to come, and suggest an imminent and major moral dilemma.

The grandfather is old enough to have lived through The Great Depression as an adult, and knows exactly how it goes down when cattle have to be slaughtered.

 For the people living in the mid 20th century, war was a big part of their lives and influenced everything. They were never free from the threat of it, even after the second World War had passed. Here’s another similarity to Deliverance: the images of war in what is technically a non-war movie.

Hud war scene
Men line a trench full of cattle, slaughtering them en masse.

The story opens at the height of summer. It’s six in the morning and bright as midday. When the story ends it is still the end of summer, but dog days. The stench of the dead cattle would have been intense. Summer isn’t all about fun in the sun. For characters in stories, summer is a vulnerable time. In the summer, characters exist in:

  1. a troubled, vulnerable state or
  2. in a world of freedom susceptible to attack

Summer stands in symbolically for an snail under the leaf setting.

Characters Of Hud

Character Functions

While Hud Bannon (34 years old) is the title character of the film adaptation, I suspect the change in title is to do with the superstar crowd-drawing power of Paul Newman. The title of the novel suggests this is mainly the story of the old man. The ‘horseman’ of Horseman, Pass By would refer to Hud’s father, Homer, who is strongly connected to horses as a symbol of his tie to nature and simple needs.

“Horseman, Pass By, ” on which the film “Hud” is based, tells the story of Homer Bannon, an old-time cattleman who epitomises the frontier values of honesty and decency, and Hud, his unscrupulous stepson.

advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By

The old man’s tie to his horses contrasts with Hud’s pink Cadillac. Elvis Presley had a 1955 Pink Cadillac, cementing that car as the vehicle of choice for rock and roll wannabes and men-about-town. Because the film is black and white, we are told several times at the very beginning that this is a ‘pink’ Cadillac. A showy colour for a small town farmer.

Hud in his pink cadillac
Symbolically linked to Hud, the Cadillac suffers damage by the final scene, caused by Hud himself, of course, ramming into his nephew’s vehicle.

Most Interesting Character: While Hud is a fascinating character, he is not the viewpoint/focalising character. We know a lot about Hud before we meet him. His nephew is looking for him, and the camera follows Lonny. Despite having lived in Thalia his whole life, Lonny’s function is similar to that of ‘the new guy in town’, because he is embarking on the new-to-him adult world that Thalia might offer. We follow Lonny as he tracks down Hud’s iconic car and then the woman’s shoe on the path, functioning like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs leading Lonny to his uncle.

Characters We Like The Most: We sympathise with Homer, who is a good man in a horrible situation. We also sympathise with the witty, attractive and world-wise Alma, especially when we learn more of her backstory, and see her sexually assaulted.

Viewpoint Character: Lonnie is the viewpoint character, obvious from the camera work in the film, but even more so in the novel, in which Lonny is the first person narrator. This is unusual for Larry McMurtry, who mostly wrote in third person. McMurtry has been accused of ‘head hopping’ but I disagree with that — instead, McMurtry probably switched to third person because he really wanted to move in and out of different characters’ heads. For me, he does it seamlessly, writing more like a novelist of the mid twentieth century than like a novelist of today, admittedly, where close third person point of view is the rule.

Off-stage Characters: Oftentimes, the characters who are missing from a story are nonetheless significant. Homer’s wife, Lonny’s mother and Hud’s older brother have all died, leaving these three men to form some semblance of family. For Alma, her missing character is her terrible ex-husband. The dead and missing family function as ‘ghosts‘ to the living (also known as the psychic wound).

Characters As Symbols For Ideas

When Larry McMurtry’s classic novel of the post-World War II era was originally published in 1961, it created a sensation in Texas literary circles. Never before had a writer portrayed the contemporary West in conflict with the Old West in such stark, realistic, unsentimental ways.

advertising copy for Horseman, Pass By

Old West in conflict with the New (mid 20th century) West. It’s not hard to fathom which character in this trio of men represents the Old West and which represents The New.

We sensed a change in American society back then. We felt that the country was gradually moving into a kind of self-absorption, and indulgence, and greed—which, of course, fully blossomed in the ‘eighties and the ‘nineties. So we made Hud a greedy, self-absorbed man, who ruthlessly strives for things, and gains a lot materially, but really loses everything that’s important. But he doesn’t care. He’s still unrepentant.

Screenwriter, Ravetch
Why Writers Can’t Trust Audiences

No matter how obvious you are.

Does this remind anyone else of the popular reaction to King of Assholes, Walter White?

FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the “charming” villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem—even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.

BAER: It actually backfired.

RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man—Hud—who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbours poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, “Which character did you most admire?” and many of them answered, “Hud.” We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic.

Michigan Quarterly Review
Stark Good and Evil

While Lonnie is our more nuanced guide throughout this story, there’s nothing at all subtle about the goodness of Homer versus the amorality of Hud. The writing lesson from that: Don’t be afraid to overdo it. We are left in no doubt as to the nature of Hud:

  • He has been in a brawl the night before, breaking a shopkeeper’s window
  • He drives a big flashy car
  • He’s spent the night sleeping with another man’s wife
  • When the woman’s husband turns up he immediately blames his nephew
  • He doesn’t want the government involved in the business of the sick cow, even though it would be unneighbourly and environmentally tragic to ignore the foot and mouth disease.
  • “Sometimes I lean to one side of [the law], sometimes I lean to the other.” Hud tells the audience his philosophy of life. 
  • “How many honest men you know? You take the sinners away from the saints you end up with Abraham Lincoln.”

That’s just the first ten minutes. In contrast, Homer is a wonderful human being:

  • He has concern for the health of his livestock as well as concern for the environment
  • He does what is right and legal despite it ruining him
  • He doesn’t blame Hud for the death of his other son, even though it was probably Hud’s fault (we see him driving)
  • He is kind to Alma “It’s no reflection on your cooking Alma, I just don’t seem to have much appetite.”
  • Black birds sitting in a gothically spindly tree are foreboding. Hud is bothered by he buzzards and shoots them away with his gun. “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Hud. They keep the country clean.”
  • “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud.”/“Don’t let that fuss you, I mean you got enough for both of us.”

Homer has just learnt his entire livelihood hangs in the balance but he goes to the picture theatre with his grandson. The image of Homer singing loudly to the tragicomic song Oh My Darling Clementine is one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching for me, even worse than the slaughter of the cows, which is memorable but we know that’s coming.

Hud Movie Theater Sing-a-Long
The Romantic Subplot

Though this is a love tragedy rather than a romance or a love story, Alma’s existence shows us how Hud would treat a wife if he had one. For Lonnie, Alma is both a motherly and a sexual figure simultaneously — a hard thing to pull off without it being super creepy. This relationship Lonnie has with Alma shows the age Lonnie is at — still young enough to need a mother figure but old enough to be looking at women with sexual interest.

Larry McMurtry write women very well, considering he’s a man. Women do a lot of crying (though not Alma), and he does love women who go without shoes. He tends to write the same character over and over — Alma is a different outworking of Clara Allen in the Lonesome Dove series and of Molly Taylor in Leaving Cheyenne. (By the way, Leaving Cheyenne is the third novel in what’s known as McMurtry’s Southwest Landmark series — Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show are the other books set in the same place at around the same time, linking together by their shared setting.)

Added to McMurtry’s understanding of women, the screenplay was written by a husband and wife team, which explains why the character of Alma is so well-drawn, so rounded and relatable.  The screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr met while working at MGM and had also collaborated on The Long Hot Summer (1958). After Hud, they wrote Hombre, Norma Rae, The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs and others. As you can probably tell, they were a good fit for Paul Newman.

Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr
Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr

My main point is that a woman on the writing team leads to better female characterisation. Every single time. A rounded character is especially important here, given the sexual assault scenes. When women are assaulted by men but are given no stories of their own, the violence feels egregious and exploitative.

What makes Alma ’rounded’?

  • Alma has her own ghost — a former husband, a gambler, abusive. She’s had trouble with unwanted sexual contact in the past. She’s basically had to run away from her old life and thought she’d found a new family with these three men.
  • Alma has her own shortcoming — she’s in a vulnerable position as paid employee, but more than that, she finds Hud attractive despite knowing how terrible he is.
  • She has her own anagnorisis — the only way she can overcome her toxic almost-relationship with Hud is by removing herself entirely.

Story Structure Of Hud

Hud is an excellent example of a story driven by a strong moral dilemma. All the best stories have a moral dilemma at some point, but in this particular story the moral dilemma is central. Donald Maass explains the difference between a ‘dilemma’ and a ‘moral dilemma’. You need a moral dilemma for good narrative:

A dilemma is a choice between two equally good or two equally bad outcomes. A moral dilemma elevates such a choice by giving two outcomes equally excellent, or excruciating, consequences not only for a protagonist, but for others. A dilemma is a situation in which none of us likes to be caught, but in which we all sometimes find ourselves. A moral dilemma is a situation nobody wants, and which few must ever face, but which is terrific for making compelling fiction.

Donald Maass

In other words, dilemmas are a day-to-day thing but moral dilemmas are super big, important problems faced only by the unlucky few. Most of us never had to kill our entire livestock. Most of us never have to choose between keeping a son or a daughter (as in Sophie’s Choice).

One way of thinking about mystery comes from Karl Iglesias. In his book Writing For Emotional Impact, Iglesias recommends the following breakdown for creating mystery around characters:

  1. Create a mysterious past Special abilities, secrets. Make the secrets hurtful and embarrassing or dangerous. Your character should be willing to do about anything to protect them.

  2. Create a mysterious present Why is the character behaving in this particular way? Maybe they say something surprising in dialogue. The balancing act for writers is, these actions have to be both surprising and consistent with attitudes and desires. This is where the moral dilemma comes in. As soon as you create a fork in the road for your character this creates curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty in the reader. The mystery is: What on earth will this character do? The harder the choice, the more interesting it is to see the character’s decision.

  3. Create a mysterious future What will be revealed about the character and when? How will the reader be surprised?— Writing For Emotional Impact

Check, check and check.

Hud’s mysterious past: He was responsible for killing his brother in a car wreck. He emerged without a scratch on himself. Turns out Hud is also a war veteran, though he did his darnedest to evade conscription. We never hear what happened to Hud during the war, but it wouldn’t have been great. So there’s his mysterious past (from Lonny’s point of view.)

The mysterious present is the question sustaining the length of the story: Do the cows have foot and mouth disease (we know that they do, because this is a story)

More interesting is Hud’s mysterious future: What is Hud going to do about this tragedy, given as how he’s such an unscrupulous asshole?

Other writers think in terms of ghost/psychic wound, setting up questions, rewarding with reveals.

It’s clear that the character function of Hud is as The Mysterious Character holding our interest. But is it really Hud who is facing the story-worthy moral dilemma? Ostensibly yes, but I’d describe Hud as I’d describe Donald Trump — this is a man whose morality was set long ago, and he’s on his own path. It’s up to everyone else around him to decide which way they roll. It is Lonnie who faces the moral dilemma of the ‘wrapper story’ — the metadiegetic level of story in which he comes to his anagnorisis at the end of the level zero story of the foot and mouth summer, but finishes his processing of it only after retelling. Lonnie must decide whether he’s going to stick by his uncle, becoming more and more like him, or set out on his own, risking everything he has left. The moral decision had by Lonnie is gradual rather than sudden. He doesn’t start the story knowing what’s right and wrong. At first Lonnie sits between Hud and his grandfather — Hud wants to sell bad stock to their neighbours; Homer wants to do the lawful thing, and Lon’s middle-of-the-road suggestion is that they turn the cattle loose. In case the audience is in any doubt about this: “You’re going to have to make up your own mind one day, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” says the grandfather to Lonny after the big struggle of words on the stairs. 

Does Hud have his own anagnorisis? If he does, it’s a surface-level realisation that he’s losing people But this is not enough to make him change. He apologises to Alma only because he’s losing her, not because he’s discovered some truth about himself and life, the universe and everything. The tragedy of Hud is that he does not change. Hud is a precursor to Don Draper, having small, almost imperceptible revelations that don’t add up to much.

Hud says goodbye to Alma


The Minotaur looming over this network of characters is the foot and mouth disease, personified by The Government, who are required to come in and kill their livestock.

Then we have a web of opposition between:

  • Hud and Homer
  • Hud and Alma (romantic opponents, morphing into abuser/abused relationship)
  • Hud and Lonnie (annoying young one, cramping the stud’s style)
  • Lonnie and Alma (between motherly interaction and sexual tension)


In a story lacking a big big struggle (e.g. a war scene, a natural disaster, a big bad baddie descending on the group) you often get an image of a big struggle, connected to the main plot only symbolically. In Hud we have the pig fight in which Hud manages to adeptly catch a squealing pig. This allows Alma to say, “I’ll stay home. I don’t like pigs,” right after she’s turned Hud down for the second time (and presumably more times than that). It also gives us a good feel for the smalltown rural vibe – this is a very hick kind of entertainment. Hud is very good at catching pigs. This is a guy with skills, such as they are. The sport of pig catching also requires the switching off of empathy because I’m sure the pigs don’t like it, though that may be a personal response, borne of suburbia.

During the contamination experiment with the outside cow Lon is kicked in the head and is knocked out. He throws up. We now know that this can be a sign of brain damage. Hud doesn’t think Lon needs the doctor, though Alma does.

The pig fight foreshadows the brawl Hud enjoys getting into with the man in the bar. The men here are reduced to fighting pigs, fighting over nothing of consequence. Indeed, the men are set up to win. The pigs have no chance.

Lonny exchanges glances with a man’s daughter and enjoys the thrill of the subsequent barroom brawl as much as Hud does. At this point the nephew could swing either way, morally. On the cusp of manhood, he could let go of principles like Hud or he could hold onto them, like his grandfather. Even at this late point, we’re not sure what Lonnie’s going to do.

The main big struggle, the third one of the night, is the one that Hud finally loses. This ghost of Hud’s guilt at killing his own brother is used as a big reveal, though it’s basically been telegraphed earlier when Homer tells the boys to be careful and Hud hands Lonnie the keys. Hud learns that the grandfather was sick of him a long time before the car accident. It’s Hud, as a person, because he ‘doesn’t give a damn’, not because of something he did. This is the rule of threes in storytelling at work. The third big big struggle leads to the real wound. Compared to these words, the fisticuffs was just play fighting. The ironic distance between the level of physicality and the quietness of the conversation on the stairs works well as juxtaposition.


Homer has a anagnorisis before he dies — that he can’t win against his stronger, less principled son. Evil wins out.

Hud has superficial revelations, never changing.

Alma realises she has to leave physically if she wants to move on psychologically.

Lonnie realises he can’t stay with Hud:

“We might have whooped it up, you and me. That’s the way you used to want it.”

“I used to.”


The extrapolated ending? We’ve been given enough information to know he’s going to get rich drilling into oil on their land. He will be wealthy but completely alone for the rest of his sorry life, damaged from the car accident, from the war, from toxic smalltown masculinity, from rejection from his father, from the death of his mother (“at least my mother loved me”) and rejection from his nephew protege. 

The film uses the symbolism of doors and windows — Hud gazes at his nephew driving away, chuffing a smoke and swigging on a beer. These vices will probably play an increasing role in his life. He waves dismissively and slams the door, slamming not just the door but also punctuating the relationship he had with anyone.

Lemon girl young adult novella


Storytelling Tips From Kings Of Summer (2013)

Sometimes when you find out a story used to be called something different right up until the marketing team stepped in, the original name can offer extra insight. Kings of Summer was originally called “Toy’s House”. The main character is called Joe Toy, and I did spend a bit of time wondering if this is a symbolic name. The boys build themselves a house in the woods and set about pretending that they’re living off the grid. And it really is a pretence, because all the while they’re using a sum of stolen money to buy roast chickens from a nearby fast food restaurant.

After learning the original name I realised this is basically a Doll’s House Story, in which characters play out a scenario in a form of play that becomes quite serious.


comedy, drama >> coming-of-age, adventure story

I will call this ‘quirky comedy’.


Why live when you can rule?

Bear in mind that this is a tagline, not a theme. A theme is not posed as a question but rather as a declarative sentence.


Unlike the tagline and marketing copy the writers’ designing principle is never made public, so I am guessing here. I bet it goes something like:

A boy learns that he can’t hasten the onset of manhood by rejecting society and the people who are closest to him.


This is a heavily symbolic setting. First we have the whole fairytale-esque symbolism of the forest thing going on. We just know anything taking place in the middle of the woods ain’t going to be a walk in the park.

The soundtrack to the film also gives us a clue about interpreting this setting. The song “Land Trunt” (played over the Game Night scene) for instance has a spaghetti Western vibe to it — this explains both the choice of ethnicity of the Italian tagalong kid and also the way the boys feel about their mission. They are cowboys, pioneers, opening up their own Wild West. Other music on the soundtrack is gangsta, e.g. “Pickpocket. These boys are finding out who they are. One moment they’re cowboys; the next they’re gangsters.

The bird house — either stolen by or constructed by the boys, I can’t remember — has an obviously misaligned entrance, symbolising the ‘Tim Burton’ off-kilter world these boys have constructed for themselves on a larger scale. A bird couldn’t live in this house, and they won’t be able to survive in theirs.
At first the boys enjoy the immense beauty of nature and we are taken along for the ride, enjoying the colours of sunset and the freedom of the wilderness stretching every which way (except in the opposite direction, straight back to the golf club and the fast food joint, comically).
These characters build like men and have fun like children, symbolised by the slide they must have nicked from a playground.
The window to the loft seems to be a rear window from a scrap yard or something.
Bonfires usually put an audience in mind of ‘rejection’. We think of book-burning, flag-burning and so on.
“Taking the plunge”. This particular scene reminded me of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Leo DiCaprio stars in the film adaptation — another Robinsonnade story in which characters remove themselves from society and live Lord of the Flies style with nothing but themselves (oh, and disease) as opponents.
My eight-year-old daughter found the letterbox hilarious. “Why on earth do they need a letterbox?” she asked. It exists purely for comedy, of course. These boys say they don’t want anyone to find them out there, but they invite society right in. Like their rickety house, their real desires are completely misaligned with their overt desires.
Their roof, like their entire plan, has a few holes in it.


There are 3 main types of adventure stories — two of them are very old. The first is the Odyssean structure, in which a character goes on a long journey, meets a bunch of opponents and returns home a changed person. (Or maybe they find a new home.) This kind of story is about 3000 years old.

The second is the Robinsonnade, so named after Robinson Crusoe of course, in which a character doesn’t go anywhere but spends most of the story holed up somewhere — maybe it’s an island, maybe it’s a cabin in the woods — and the opponents are right there with him (it’s usually a him). This kind of story is as old as Robinson Crusoe.

Kings of Summer is — you guessed it — a Robinsonnade.


Similar to Nadine, the main character of The Edge of Seventeen, Joe is a significantly flawed character.

Joe needs to become a man. This is to be pretty much expected when watching coming-of-age films starring boys. It’s clear how much pressure there is on boys to

  1. Not be women
  2. Not be gay
The facial hair Joe manages to sprout while in the woods is an attempt at wild masculinity. Failing to grow a full beard, he keeps the moustache.

The problem is, while Joe has a few skills — plenty for his age — he certainly doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave civilisation behind. I am reminded of an interview I listened to with Jon Kraukauer, who wrote the 1996 biography of Christopher McCandless, Into The Wild. An enduring question most people have after either watching the film or reading the biography: Did Chris mean to die in the wild? Kraukauer thinks no. As a young man he himself did all sorts of reckless things as an intrepid rock climber and if you read his book about rock climbing (Into Thin Air) you’ll see that he came close to death himself. Kraukauer describes the mindset of certain young men who do these things — they really do believe they’re invincible. He argues that McCandless really did not mean to die in the wild. I believe the fictional character of Joe Toy (who is frolicking in the woods as if it’s his personal ‘toy’ playground) is a Chris McCandless/Jon Krakauer type of teenage boy: Full of swag and bravado and disdain for society.

The masculinity theme of the story is introduced near the beginning of the film when Joe has his t-shirt ripped off him by a gang of anonymous corridor bullies. Instead of expressing nervousness or admiration for Joe’s naked torso she nonchalantly offers him one of her t-shirts. It is clear that Kelly does not consider him a love interest. This is symbolised by the fact that he’s wearing a girly pastel yellow t-shirt with a rainbow on the front — and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rainbow is a gay symbol.

The character of Biaggio is a purely comic character who exists not only to make jokes and (at one point) give the audience a hilarious fright, but is also Joe’s reflection character: Biaggio is of small build, does not grow a beard in the wild and has no problem declaring that he is has no gender.

Biaggio, pretending to be a character in some kind of war movie

This is a kid who is completely at home with who he is. Baggio is the Fregley from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, who is similarly immune to the huge pressures of adolescence. Greg Heffley is another boy character who is concerned with becoming a Man, which means finding his role in the masculine pecking order, aiming for as high as possible.

Fregley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid


It’s not immediately clear what Joe wants. Well, it’s clear that he does not want to be living at home with his father, who annoys the hell out of him but this is not an active desire. It gradually dawns on the audience what Joe is planning with his friends. He is berated by his father for leaving ‘tools’ on the driveway. What’s he using the tools for? Turns out he’s building a house in the woods. Meanwhile, his best friend Patrick has a father who has a comically great habit of knocking on the wall of the den, saying there should be a stud in there. It’s only clear in hindsight that these boys have quite a bit of carpentry knowledge, and it has come from at least one of the fathers.


  1. The parents
  2. The best friends
  3. Kelly — Joe’s love opponent
This scene at the police station is a great comedic scene which serves to highlight the different characters of the parents. The parents themselves are friendly opponents.
Kelly, Joe’s love opponent. The audience knows she’s the love opponent from the get-go, no least because she is blonde and pretty. Also nice, with no distinguishing personality traits.


We see the boys carrying out the plan rather than discussing it. This has been going on for a while before the story starts. They’ve been magpie-ing a variety of items — stealing from playgrounds, construction sites and people’s houses — in order to build their own sharehouse in the woods. They plan to move there as soon as it’s liveable. They will hunt for their own food and spend the rest of their days living apart from society, free from the pressures of home, school and work.


There are two main struggles in this story:

  1. The interpersonal struggle, between the two best friends
  2. The struggle against nature, with the snake inside the house

The interpersonal big struggle comes about because of a girl. They both like this good-looking girl, who ends up choosing Patrick over Joe. Since Joe has a sense of entitlement about ‘getting the girl’, he can’t accept this. In his mind, he likes her more and he therefore deserves her. There is a big fight (an actual fisticuffs) between the boys and a seemingly irreparable rift. Joe declares that he needs to be left alone, and for a while, he is. He goes full wildman, obviously having run out of money for the precooked roast chickens (we learned exactly how much money was taken during the police station scene with the parents — it was under $300). He even ends up murdering a rabbit and skinning it, throwing away his “Living In The Wild” handbook, realising that there is no substitute for experience. This is a symbolic moment too: “There’s no preparation for adulthood like plain old teenager/life experience”.

The big struggle scene between the boys has been foreshadowed by a montage of scenes showing us how these characters are spending their time in the woods: A lot of time is spent playing childlike, competitive games.

Then of course there is the snake scene.

I watched this with my Australian-born husband who laughed and said, “A snake would never behave like that.” That’s true, but the thing is, sometimes writers of stories need ‘nature’ to make a strike. They did it in Jaws (even though sharks don’t hunt people). Larry McMurtry did it in Lonesome Dove with the impossible and infamous cottonmouth incident, killing one river-crosser and impressing upon the audience that nature can and will kill them off one by one. More recently we have Andy Weir’s The Martian, in which the main character is subjected to a horrific dust storm and must therefore leave his spaceship. In fact, horrific dust storms can’t happen on Mars because of its lack of atmosphere. If something hits you on Mars, it’s like being bashed with feathers. Weir has been criticised for this incident in an otherwise quite scientifically accurate story, and has said numerous times that he needed ‘nature to strike first’.

Snakes, sharks, storms… Writers across the generations have taken our natural fears and anthropomorphised them into beasts with intent to kill us. Fans of mimesis in storytelling need to put that aside in order to enjoy narrative. However, a comedy such as this one is over-the-top ridiculous in places, and just like the cheesy lines of Desperate Housewives, they can get away with more because of the knowingly satirical setting they’ve created. Kings of Summer never really strives for scientific accuracy and so we don’t expect it.


In the vast majority of stories the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom. This doesn’t happen in this particular story — the hero’s plan for total and complete freedom is totally foiled — not least because he doesn’t really want it. (He wants a girlfriend, not to live like Chris McCandless.) At the end of the story Joe’s father advises him not to hurry to become a man. Joe has moved from slavery to freedom, back to slavery (for now). This is a comic tragedy.


We know that Joe will eventually have some of the freedom he craves — he just has to get a few years older, then he’ll be off to college like his older sister. The subplot of the relationship between the older sister and her father has given us a clue that Joe will never be completely free from his family.

The final scene shows us the state of Joe’s friendship with his best friend. Meeting each other at the lights (significantly, the parents are in the drivers’ seats), they give each other the middle finger, but in comedic, playground fashion. We can guess that these guys are still friends, but their friendship has shifted for good. Now that his best friend has ‘got the girl’, they have left true boyhood irrevocably behind, and for a while they’re in that in between stage, sometimes childlike, sometimes behaving like adults.

Cowboys, Westerns and Lonesome Dove

The Brave Cowboy, by Joan Walsh Anglund

Here’s the premise of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: Two Texas Rangers decide to move cattle from the south to Montana running into many problems along the way.


Detail a legendary journey while including the harsh realities of Wild-Western life to show that the ‘legends’ of the Wild West were ordinary men working in unglamorous conditions.

Pulitzer Prize winners may have a reputation for being dense and requiring much work, but if that’s the case, Lonesome Dove is an exception. This is what you’d call ‘super readable’. A page-turner. Which is just as well, because you could build a house with these bricks.

If you would like to know what it feels like to be a cattle man in the Wild West in the mid 1870s, and you don’t like the idea of getting kilt or drinking black coffee for breakfast or hoiking up black phlegm from all the dust or using your saddle for a pillow while sleeping on the hard, cold ground; if you aren’t the owner of an actual time machine, then this is the book for you. McMurtry does an excellent job of detailing the day-to-day realities of being a cowboy in the Wild West.

And few authors would be more qualified. Larry McMurtry’s own father was a cattleman, along with every one of his eight uncles. McMurtry himself obviously absorbed a lot of the dialect, grammar and vocabulary of cattlemen, putting it to good use in his Western novels.

I wouldn’t have called myself a fan of Wild West stories beforehand. The West was a misogynistic setting, not to mention all the atrocities involved in almost wiping out the Native Americans. Cowboy stories can sometimes glamorise and glorify the white man’s domination. Indeed, McMurtry can’t rewrite history, but nor does he glamorise these men. “Would you want to know them?” he said once in an interview, acknowledging that the main characters are emotionally stunted, unreasonable people. Yet they are also rounded. Gus and Call feel like real people. Newt, the ‘Lonesome Dove’ of the title, is the teenage newcomer, and the reader’s introduction to this foreign world.

There is violence in this book, as there was in the Wild West. But there is no attendant glory. Rape scenes are referred to but not described in gory detail. Even the big struggle scenes which have been extended for dramatic purposes in the mini-series adaptation comprise just a page or two in the book. The vast majority of text describes day-to-day practicalities and conversations and emotional landscapes. Gus drops many funny and quotable one-liners.

The female characters are constrained by the gender rules of their time. Despite this, they are as strong and stoic as the men. As it says on the cover, ‘If you only read one Western novel in your life, read this one.’



Brush-busting – riding through scrub

Duds – clothes

Carrot, bean, dingus, pod, a poke etc – well, you can guess from context.

Cowpie – a dropping of cow dung. McMurtry spells it as a single word, but pronounce it as two.

Crack one’s noggin – to go a bit crazy

Chili-bellies – derogatory term for Mexicans

Chunking varmints – killing animals to eat by throwing rocks at them

Cut out a beef for the cook – to choose a cow from the herd in order to eat

Draw rein – to rein in a horse and make it stop

Harry – to harry an area is to cause trouble; to persistently carry out attacks on (an enemy or an enemy’s territory)

In chunking distance of – near

Lope – the cowboys use this word to mean ‘ride a horse’ somewhere as in ‘lope on over to X’

Lunkhead – a slow-witted person

Nuzzling the jug – having a drink

On the prod – riled up and stirring others up for a fight

Plays out – when a horse ‘plays out’ she has had it, with no energy left, and can die.

Soap bones – a disparaging term for someone’s horse. (They used to make soap from horse fat and glue from the hooves.)

Sour as a clabber – describes Jake’s look. Clabber is a food produced by allowing unpasteurized milk to turn sour at a specific humidity and temperature. Over time, the milk thickens or curdles into a yogurt-like substance with a strong, sour flavour.

Talk guff – guff is ridiculous or insolent talk

Sporting life – sex work

Wet as a muskrat – a large semiaquatic North American rodent with a musky smell, valued for its fur


Adobe – a building made of clay bricks (or the clay, or the bricks). Adobe buildings are common in countries with low rainfall. The clay is basically silt deposited by rivers. The bricks are dried under the sun.

Army trail – these were well-marked, making it possible for even someone with as few trekking skills as Roscoe to make his way between towns.

Barroom – a room where alcoholic drinks are served over a counter. July and Roscoe are warned that in the Wild West they’ll be facing ‘more than a barroom scrape in Arkansas’.

Bluff – a high, steep bank, as by a river or the sea, or beside a ravine or plain; a cliff with a broad face. The men see limestone bluffs to the west as they travel north.

Breastwork – a low temporary defence or parapet. A little fort made by Gus and Pea to protect themselves from Indian arrows

Cistern – When I think of a cistern I think of the toilet, but the cistern is the tank used to store rainwater in Lonesome Dove. Unlike wells, cisterns have waterproof linings. In Lonesome Dove, the well is still being dug, and no one particularly wants to dig it in the heat.

Corral – a pen for livestock, especially cattle or horses, on a farm or ranch. We might just say a paddock, here. Or an enclosure.

Cow trail – What the cowboys call the cattle trail, the path used to transport cows from place to place. You can find old maps with major cattle trails marked on them. The cow trail of this story is the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which is highly significant because this trail is named after the two men who inspired the characters of Gus and Call.

Cutbank – A cut bank, also known as a river cliff or river-cut cliff, is the outside bank of a water channel (stream), which is continually undergoing erosion. So, not quite a ‘cliff’ but just as hazardous to your cattle and horses if you fail to see it coming.

Freshet – the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow. Gus and Pea met with this after being surrounded by Indians in Montana.

Gully – A gully is a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width. Blue Duck is in the habit of retreating to a particular gully when tailed.

Llano – (in South America) a treeless grassy plai. “The llano is a big place.”

Red River – The Red River, or sometimes the Red River of the South, is a major tributary of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in the southern United States of America. Legendary for drowning cowboys.

The Canadian – shorthand for The Canadian River. The Canadian River is the longest tributary of the Arkansas River. It is about 906 miles (1,458 km) long, starting in Colorado and traveling through New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and Oklahoma. Blue Duck tells Gus that he’d better watch out if he sees him north of The Canadian River.

The Canadian River

Two-bit town – Jake Spoon returns to Lonesome Dove and is disappointed to find it’s still a ‘two-bit town’ (‘missing 15 cents’). ‘Two-bit’ means cheap/worthless and comes from “the value of a quarter of a dollar.” There is no such thing as a single bit, at least not anymore. The now obsolete Spanish dollar comprised eight reals, or eight bits, so a quarter of the dollar equaled two bits. The phrase “two bits” carried over into U.S. usage, though there’s no bit coin in U.S. currency. “Two bits” first appeared in print in English in 1730 (and later developed the figurative sense of “something of small worth or importance”), followed in 1802 by its adjectival relative. These days, the adjective has far surpassed the noun in popularity. (Merriam-Webster)

Windlass – apparatus for moving heavy weights, like the thing over a well which is used to pull up dirt (and presumably water, when it’s dug).


Apache – refers to a number of Native American groups with little political unity.Apachean people formerly ranged over parts of ArizonaMexico, New MexicoTexas, and Colorado. In Lonesome Dove the Apache don’t get much of a mention, except to say Call and Gus once thought they’d head ‘out west of the Pesos’, but only the rare settler has challenged the Apache, so there was ‘no need for Rangers’. I wonder why the white men left the Apache alone, even while fighting the Comanche? The Apachean peoples had already been fighting with the Spanish and Mexican peoples for centuries. By the time the American Army thought of fighting them, they were very good fighters and strategists.

Blackfeet – not to be confused with the ‘Blackfoot Confederacy’, of which about 6,000 live today. The Blackfeet Nation are called Pikáni and are mainly in Montana. Both Blackfoot and Blackfeet peoples speak Blackfoot language. Much of their history is similar. They were named ‘blackfeet’ by white settlers, because they did something to the bottom of their moccasins to make them more durable. (Maybe using pine tar or charcoal or something like that.) Or it may have been a reference to the bottoms of their actual feet, which turned black from running barefoot.

Braves – refers to Native American warriors. Today there’s the ‘Atlanta Braves’ baseball team, which is weird because otherwise the term is an insult due to its troubling history as outlined in this novel. (Ditto ‘redskins’.)

Card sharp – a person who uses skill and deception to win at poker or other card games. So, not quite a cheat. A card counter.

Cornshuck mattress – Lorena’s bed in Lonesome Dove is a mattress stuffed with the husks of Indian corn. None too comfortable.

Cowpoke – another word for a cowboy, but used disparagingly. A cowboy has prestige and credibility. A cowpoke tends to be lazy. Shortened also to ‘poke’.

Cowpuncher – yet another word for a cowboy

Comanche – a Plains Indian who inhabited what used to be called ‘Comancheria’. This part of the world is now New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The Comanche were hunter gatherers with a strong horse culture. Gus has killed as many Comanche as any other Ranger in his time. Despite this, he feels some affinity for them, being ‘people of the horse, not of the town’.

Desperado – a desperate or reckless person, especially a criminal.

Farmers – are at the bottom of the pecking order. Cattlemen are a step up from farmers, according to cattlemen. Yet the cattlemen, along with Roscoe and July and Joe stay at farms along their travels, with interesting encounters along the way. I guess the farmers along the Army trail and other established cattle trails were used to overnight guests.

Horse thieves – were a threat to horse traders and rustlers and wranglers, though I can’t personally work out where one begins and the other ends. I suppose a horse thief steals horses that have already been rounded up by the likes of Gus and Call’s team, though it seems Gus refers to himself as a kind of ‘rustler’ (horse thief).

Horse trader – Clara’s husband Bob is a horse trader, and has made a lot of money by providing horses for the army. Gus considers this a dangerous job. “I’ve known horse traders who didn’t last a year.” Jake points out that Gus himself is a horse trader, though technically Gus round up the cattle and sell them on to horse traders. The comment about the danger of horse trading foreshadows the condition in which they will find Bob, who has been kicked in the head by a horse and rendered brain dead. Presumably the job is also dangerous because of the threat of being captured and scalped by Indians.

Horse wrangler – A wrangler is someone employed to handle animals professionally. So he breaks the horses in. A cowboy herds the horses up while himself on horseback.

Kiowa – another Native American tribe. They migrated from western Montana southward into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally into the Southern Plains by the early 19th century. In 1867, the Kiowa moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.There are about 12,000 left today. Call gets bitten in the back by a ‘Kiowa horse’ and Gus says he should’ve known better than to turn his back on one. This made me wonder if Kiowa horses were especially vicious. But Gus’s comment may have been a comment on the Kiowa people themselves: ‘Typical of all plains Indian peoples the Kiowa were a warrior people that fought frequently with enemies both neighbouring and far beyond their territory. The Kiowa were notable even among plains Indians for their long distance raids, including raids far south into Mexico and north onto the northern plains. Almost all warfare took place while mounted on horses after the introduction of horses into Kiowa society.’ (Wikipedia)

Nester – a squatter who settled on government land, usually to farm

Peon – a Spanish-American day labourer or unskilled farm worker (whose boss is a ‘jefe’). This is how the cowboys refer to the underling Native Americans. (For example the men who work under Blue Duck.)

Pistolero – Thrown around as an insulting term by these American cowboys, a pistolero is a member of an armed band of roving mounted bandits. Comes from Spanish ‘pistola’, of course. (Pistol.)

Posse – originally a body of men summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law. More widely, a group of people with a common occupation. ‘A posse of cowboys’ etc.

Sharpshooter – someone who can shoot a gun very accurately. Gus is the best sharpshooter in the group.

Sioux – Jake says the Sioux and the Cheyenne have got the grass of Montana all to themselves. He wants to go up there, kill them off and reap the financial rewards of claiming Montana for men like him. The Sioux comprise three major divisions based on Siouan dialect and subculture (Santee, Yankton-Yanktonai, and Lakota). Today, the Sioux govern across several reservations, communities, and reserves in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Montana.

Sodbuster – a farmer or farm worker who ploughs the land. As mentioned throughout Lonesome Dove, cowboys and outlaws pay little respect to farmers.

Stage robbers – people who rob stagecoaches, a type of four-wheeled covered wagon pulled by horses/mules. Stagecoaches were frequent targets for robbers, and it didn’t help that they ran on established routes at predictable times. (The Jarbidge Stage Robbery was the last stage robbery in the Old West. In 1916 a small two horse-driven mail wagon was ambushed on its way to Nevada.)

Vaquero – a horse mounted livestock herder. Basically a cowboy, before American cowboys existed. In fact, the American cowboys learnt much of their craft from the vaqueros, who developed their skills on the Iberian Peninsula, took them to South America and then moved up into America eventually.

Waddie – another slang term for a cowboy, though perhaps McMurtry is using an anachronism with this one. It maybe didn’t come about until the late 1800s. The word is used to describe skinny Jasper Fant. It is generally used affectionately to describe each other.

Wrangler – The person in charge of the remuda (group of horses) is generally known as a wrangler.


Arrows – while the white men used guns, the Indians used both guns (usually old and poorly maintained) and arrows. Sometimes the arrows were poisoned. Native American tribes used venomous reptiles to provide the poisons required. In the Southwest United States, the Gila Monster, being one of the only two venomous lizards.

Beaver hat – impossible to guess what a beaver hat would look like since, apart from being made of beaver, could be a variety of shapes and textures, from fluffy to shiny and smooth.

Bed-ground – the cowboy equivalent of a bedroom for the night. Good cowboys didn’t need much sleep, and had to remain awake on a horse for very long hours. Neither Gus nor Call need much in the way of sleep. The men whose circadian rhythms require more sleep soon get a reputation for being lazy.

Bowie knife – a fixed-blade fighting knife first popularized by James Bowie in the early 19th century.

Brogans – lace up shoes, worn by Louisa. There are both men’s and women’s styles. Louisa wears men’s ones.

Buckboard – a four-wheeled wagon of simple construction meant to be drawn by a horse or other large animal.

Buckshot – coarse lead shot used in shotgun shells

Buffalo chips – dried buffalo dung used as fuel, sometimes even for cooking (which Gus hates)

Poster of The life of Buffalo Bill, 1912
Poster of The life of Buffalo Bill, 1912
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) North America
Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) North America

Buttermilk – both Gus and Call love to drink buttermilk. Originally, buttermilk was a byproduct: the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream. These days it’s made by culturing milk.

Cap and ball gun – The cap and ball loading method is one of the first and earliest methods of loading a revolver. Samuel Colt created the first revolver in 1836 which relied on loose powder and ball, although this meant that the gun would be slow to load, usually requiring around four minutes, the method was practical and dependable. In the 1870s when the men met Indians using such a gun, this meant the gun was old-fashioned.

Cavalry cap – What Deets wears on his head. Apparently he found it lying around sometime in the 1850s. It’s like a baseball cap that’s kind of squashed down at the front.

Chaps – Leather pants that go over normal trousers to protect the legs when riding through bushy terrain. Chaps look like leather trousers minus the bum and crotch area. Sometimes fringed for decorative purposes.

Cobbler – refers to a variety of dishes, consisting of a fruit or savoury filling poured into a large baking dish and covered with a batter, biscuit, or pie crust before being baked. Po Campo makes the men ‘a sugary cobbler made with dewberries’. (It’s thought that sugary food is good for hangovers.)

Derringer – a small pistol with a large bore, which is very effective at close range

Dewberry – any of a number of trailing brambles (in N. America) with soft prickles and edible fruit resembling the blackberry, which have a dewy white bloom on the skin

Dogie – motherless or neglected calf, easy to round up for even the most hapless cowboy.

Double eagle – a gold coin worth 20 dollars

Dust – it’s hard to imagine how much of it there would have been and how you would be affected in the days before even sunglasses. The men wore bandannas across their mouths to get less mud in their mouths, but the men new to the job found themselves wanting to throw up, there was so much white dust kicked up by the cattle. Men and horses looked white with it.

Fatback – as in ‘biscuits and fatback’. Fat from the upper part of a side of pork, especially when dried and salted in strips. (Apart from the biscuits – scones – these men pretty much at a paleo diet.)

Frock coat – worn by the eccentric entomologist, A frock coat is a man’s coat characterised by a knee-length skirt (often cut just above the knee) all around the base, popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Fryback – another food. Eaten with cornbread. I can’t find exactly what it is, though perhaps it’s leftover lard?

Goat-gun – Bolivar holds his goat-gun close when he’s feeling unsure. Gus is worried he’s going to blow up the whole house and everyone with it. I suppose it’s called his ‘goat gun’ because he uses it when he goes rustling goats, but underscores the way these men felt about their weapons — different weapons for different, specific purposes.Jake Spoon is said to have killed the dentist with his ‘buffalo gun’. Same with knives and horses.

Gunplay – the word to describe shoot ups. Gunplay is what the men fear when they go rustling.

Hackamore – Call instructs the boys to make hackamores after they’ve caught a large herd of horses. A hackamore is headgear which does not have a bit. Instead, it has a special type of noseband that works on pressure points on the face, nose, and chin.

Hats – liable to blow off more than one might think.

Henry – a rifle patented in 1860 by a man with the last name of Henry, funnily enough. Cal carries a Henry. Gus favours the Colt Revolver.

Hobble – horses need to be hobbled so they don’t run off. When one of the Irish brothers is startled and drunk he tries to ride off on a hobbled mule. A horse can be hobbled by tying two of its adjacent legs together, or by tying up one leg. I wonder how unpleasant this is for a horse.

Horehound candy – a dark brown hard candy with a distinctly bittersweet taste. It is commonly sold in 5 inch long sticks or lozenges, which are often sugar coated. It’s a folk remedy for helping sore throats and other cold symptoms.

Lariat – a rope used as a lasso or for tethering. Bolivar takes one with him to have a shit among the chaparral. Gus and Call, looking on, can’t work out why he needs a lariat to take a dump.

Lunch – there is none. Call doesn’t like to stop for a midday meal. This makes a hearty breakfast important.

Malaria – Gus called his horse Malaria which makes me wonder the extent of its threat in that area at that time. Malaria was eradicated in America in the 1950s but had been prevalent in earlier eras, particularly before the 1880s. Malaria was a leading cause of death. When it didn’t cause death it seriously undermined public health. (In the southern states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, 7.8% of deaths in 1850 resulted from malarial fevers.)

Mash – home-distilled alcohol. Probably made with cornmeal, sugar and yeast in boiling water. You can even use sourdough as starter. This ‘mash’ was probably fermented by covering the pot in cheesecloth and storing in a dark place. After a while the top turns brown and foamy. When the sugar has been metabolised by the yeast it turns sour. Sounds disgusting. Prohibition didn’t take place in the US until 1920. The men also drink a lot of whiskey, often sharing a jug on the veranda.

Pallet – a straw mattress, or a crude or makeshift bed

Patching – needed to be done regularly, both on the wagon and on Deets’ quilt pants. I guess this means the men were good with needle and thread.

Plains Indian Sign Language – The Kiowa and other nations picked up sign language from the Mexicans. It’s no longer used much. It originated because each tribe spoke a different language, and they needed to trade to each other and so on. There is mention of sign language in the book. In the TV series, Gus seems to make the Plains Indian sign for ‘good’ as Blue Duck approaches.

Pommel – the highest part of the back of the saddle

Point – referred to positions, like sporting positions, alongside the herd. (Left point, right point etc.) The worst place to be was at the rear, catching all the dust. (The ‘drags’.) This spot was reserved for the lowest ranked in the crew, and in this case, the youngest. Dish is an excellent ‘point man’, keeping point all day, never letting the cattle get out of sight.

Reins – ideally made of plaited horse hair, which is stronger than leather reins.

Root-the-peg – a pocketknife game. Players flip knives to make them stick in the dirt. Another pocketknife game is mumblypeg, also called ‘mumbletypeg’, which is mentioned later in the book. The men use a ‘case knife’ which is term used in the south simply meaning a table knife.

Quirt – Lorena uses a quirt to cut a man’s face. I thought it was a kind of knife but actually it’s a whip. A quirt is a forked type of stock whip which usually has two falls at the end. The falls on a quirt are made of leather, buffalo, or cow hide. The core of the quirt is usually a leather bag filled with lead shot, the main part including the handle is often made from braided rawhide, leather or kangaroo hide and is usually somewhat stiff but flexible.

Rawhide – animal skin that has not been tanned. It’s therefore a much lighter colour than leather, more like parchment. (Think of a dog’s chew toy shaped like a bone like you can buy at the vet. That’s rawhide.) Cowboys used it to make whips because it’s more durable than leather. It’s also used to make drums and lampshades and sometimes shoes.

Rivermen – cause the sheriff in San Antonio grief. These are men who are ‘always drinking, fighting and cutting one another up’. I’m imagining men such as those in Huckleberry Finn, who live on boats, making lives of crime and odd jobs. Others would have made honest careers out of transporting fur and liquor and many other goods of the time by water. And it would have been a physically demanding job.

Rowel – Gus sits on Lorena’s bed and likes to ‘twirl the rowel of his spur’. It seems the ‘spur’ refers to the entire thing that straps to the boot. The ‘rowel’ is the little round thing with spikes that hurts the horses. Gus plays with his spur as if it’s a musical instrument. Some cowboys used to add small metal earring-looking things near their rowels which jangled when they walked. You’ll recognise the sound from cowboy movies or spoofs. These jangly pieces were called ‘jingo bobs’ or ‘jingle bobs’. I suppose those jingo bobs were the cowboy equivalent of no-muffler in the age of the rev-head.

Serape – Bolivar’s garment — a long, blanket-like shawl. Generally brightly coloured and fringed, worn by Mexican men. Bolivar gives one to Newt to use as an actual blanket.

Singing – the only skill those Irish brothers brought was their ability to sing. As Gus said, if there’d been two more of them, they’d have made a fine barbershop quartet. In fact the skill of singing wasn’t entirely useless. Cowboys used to sing overnight to keep the cattle calm. The songs would mask other sounds of the night, which were inclined to put the wind up the cows, in which case they were liable to take off in a panic. As long as the singing continued, the cattle remained calm. They would sing songs such as ‘Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie‘ and probably got mighty sick of the songs they knew, though Irishmen are famous for knowing many, many songs as they come from a strong tradition of singing.

Singletree – These days called simply a ‘tree’ – the top part of a saddle. Made of wood, hence ‘tree’. In the old days saddle trees comprised different parts of wood. Then they were made of a single piece of wood, but for a while the term ‘single tree’ distinguished the two kinds. Peaches gives July’s stepson an old singletree before the two set off after Jake Spoon. I had to ask what the ‘single’ refers to on Quora and here are the answers.

Saddle – the saddle was possibly a cowboy’s most important piece of equipment. He used it not only to ride in but as a pillow at night. He used its horns to tie the end of a lasso. His other equipment hung off it. A saddle was like a pair of boots in that it needed breaking in, and would have moulded itself under specific pairs of buttocks.

Saddle scabbard – where the men keep their rifles. Looks like a scabbard a cowboy would wear on his belt, but this is bigger and hangs off his saddle.

Saddle soap – still used today for keeping leather supple. Comes in a tin like shoe polish and apparently has a distinctive smell.

Sidearm – a weapon worn at a person’s side, such as a pistol or formerly a sword

Six-shooter – a revolver with six chambers

Slicker – a long overcoat. A cowboy slicker would ideally have had three buttons above a split at the back, with the buttons doing up over the man’s backside, making it more practical for sitting astride a horse. Gus wore a yellow slicker.

Trail-broken – once the cattle are trail-broken it’s easier for the cowboys to keep them going where they want them to go.

Walker Colt – The Colt Walker was a single action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six charges of black powder behind six bullets. It was designed in 1846. Deet carries one of these.

Winchester rifle –  Winchester rifles were among the earliest repeating rifles; the Winchester repeater was incredibly popular and is colloquially known as “The Gun that Won the West” for its predominant role in the hands of Western settlers. But Call always uses a Henry, even when his men are all using Winchesters due to their being lighter. Perhaps Call considers a lighter gun a kind of laziness.


Bay horse – Bay is a horse colour. Brown with black hairs in it. (Unlike ‘sorrel’, in which there are no black hairs in the mix.)

Beeves – plural of beef (cows raised to be beef)

Bison – The systematic commercial bison hunting by white hunters in the 19th century nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed Native American life on the Great Plains. Early American settlers called bison “bufello” due to the similar appearance between bison and buffalo, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American variety. But buffalo and bison are different animals.You find actual buffalo in Africa and Asia. The American bison has a large shoulder hump and massive head. Buffalo have all but gone from the South but are still plentiful in Yellowstone, according to Jake, at the time of the story. It’s commonly thought that bison were plentiful on the American plains before white men arrived, but in fact the Native Americans themselves kept the populations down. For a while there was a population explosion of bisons, between the events of white men killing a lot of Native Americans, and white men killing a lot of bison.


Bronc – short for bronco, a wild or half-tamed horse of the western US.

Bulls – unlike grizzlies, unbranded bulls were a genuine threat, wandering into camp and mating with the cows, charging at the cattlemen, threatening their horses.

Bullbat – not a bat but a common nighthawk. Comes out at sundown. It is sometimes called a “bull-bat”, due to its “bat-like” flight, and the “bull-like” boom made by its wings as it pulls from a dive.

Buzzards – if cowboys see buzzards in the distance circling around something on the prairie it’s a good sign they’re eating something dead. No wonder buzzards have an ominous undertone in film.

Chaparral – a shrubland/heathland plant community found mainly in California and the North Baja California Peninsula. Shaped by mild, wet winters and hot dry summers with wildfire. Comes from Spanish ‘chaparro’, meaning the Kermes Oak.

Crawdad – dialect for a kind of crayfish. In Australia they’re called ‘yabbies’.

Cottonmouth – a large, dangerous semiaquatic pit viper which inhabits lowland swamps and waterways of the south-eastern US. When threatening it opens its mouth wide to display the white interior. Another danger when crossing rivers and stopping to let horses drink.

Dun horse – a dun horse comes in a variety of colours but its body is lighter than its mane and its legs.

Gant horse – ‘gant’ is also used as a verb as in ‘to gant a horse’. Seems to be a regional variation on ‘gaunt’, and means to make a horse thin by insufficient feeding and a lot of riding/work. Also ‘to gant up’. Seems to be Scottish. (The character of Call was born in Scotland, which causes Gus to accuse him of not being American over breakfast.)

Gelding – a castrated animal, especially a male horse. ‘To geld a horse’ is the verb.

Grizzly bears – the men are scared of bears, perhaps in a pleasantly threatening kind of way, because they’ve never actually seen one down south. There would have been a few back then, sure, but grizzly bears were pretty much wiped out from the plains of America (by men such as these) between 1850 and 1920. Today grizzlies are not found in America outside Alaska and the very top of the Canadian border. The cowboys in LD did eventually meet a grizzly when they got high enough. It proved about an even match for the bull.

Grulla – a type of horse coloration. (Pronounce as if it’s still only Spanish.) The body colour will be smoky or mouse coloured (not a mixture of black and white hairs, but each individual hair is mouse colored). A grulla usually has a dorsal stripe, shoulder striping or shadowing and black leg barring on lower legs. Grullo is used equally.

Horse nickering – Lorena can hear horses nickering from her room, but I had no idea what that actually sounded like. Here’s a YouTube video of someone’s horse nickering. It’s basically an excited grunty sound. People who know horses divide nickers further: There’s the greeting nicker, the courtship nicker and the maternal nicker.

Jackrabbit – a hare found on the prairies and steppes of North America

Lobo wolf – lobo is Spanish and Portugese for wolf, so I guess the men mean wolves from across the border.

Locoweed – (also crazyweed and loco) is a common name in North America for any plant that produces swainsonine, a phytotoxin harmful to livestock. (It looks quite a lot like Paterson’s Curse, which is the equivalent around these parts.)

Mosquitoes – It’s hard to imagine how much of an annoyance these would have been. The mosquitoes are so thick at one stage that if one of the cowboys touched his face he’d end up with a red smear across it. There wasn’t even the benefit of DIMP. I guess a successful cowboy would have had to build up somewhat of a resistance to the bites over time, or else end up covered in huge welts. It’s mentioned that the Irish brothers suffered most, and I’m thinking it’s because they had yet to build some resistance to the local mosquitoes.

Mesquite – the coals of mesquite are used for fires to cook over. Mesquite are trees which grow in hot, dry areas of southern America, as far north as Southern Kansas. The cattle herders do not like mesquite because it’s hard to drive cattle through. They much prefer the prairies.

Mouse snake – the boys are scared even of mouse snakes after one of the crew is killed by a nest of cottonmouths. I wonder if they mean a ‘rat snake’ which is not venomous, changing it to ‘mouse snake’ to make it seem even less harmful.

Nag – an old/worthless horse

Pacing horse – Jake Spoon is known for riding a pacing horse. What is that, exactly? Jake says he prefers pacing horses because they’re ‘easier on the seat’. It’s to do with a horse’s gait: ‘a pacing horse is less stable on uneven ground, which would make it less practical as a cowboy’s horse. A pacing horse lifts the front and back leg on the same side, and rocks side to side as it moves forward. A trotting horse lifts right front/left rear (left front/right rear) together, and it’s a much more even gait for the horse (and the rider). … For some horses, pacing is a fairly natural gait because it’s been bred into them. It is possible that in the Lonesome Dove example, they are not referring to an actual pacing horse, but just any horse with a fancy gait that wasn’t necessary, such as a Tenneesee Walking Horse… they’re giving [Jake] crap because he’s got a fancy-pants horse when any regular horse would have been a more practical choice.’ (MetaFilter) When Gus sees an Indian (Blue Duck) riding a pacing horse he is immediately suspicious. Indians didn’t traditionally ride them, so Blue Duck may have shot a Mexican and taken his pacing horse.

Possum – are mostly eaten by negroes, who catch them. (Negroes also eat turtles, according to the girl who tags along with Roscoe.)

Prickly pear – an annoyance to cowboys who are often getting spiked by it. I wondered if the bush grew pears, at least. Turns out it’s a cactus — the archetypal kind that you would’ve seen on Road Runner etc. Its hairlike prickles easily penetrate the skin. They’re native only to America but have been introduced to other parts of the world, including Australia. The fruit of prickly pears is edible, although it must be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin.

Rat Snake – a medium to large constrictor. They eat mainly rodents and birds and are nonvenomous.

Rattlesnakes – are a plenty in Lonesome Dove. Jake Spoon says it’s a pity there’s not a good trade in snake meat, in which case Lonesome Dove would be a lot better off. Unlike rat snakes, rattlesnakes are venomous. Poison gets into you when the snakes bites with its fangs. There was no antivenom when this story was set. Antivenom was originally called ‘antivenin’, and the first published use was in 1895. At first it was just for the Indian cobra. These days, if you got bitten by a rattlesnake you’d need a product called CroFab, the only official treatment in America since the year 2000. Before that there was Crotaline, which had only been around since 1953 anyhow. If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake there’s a chance it’s a ‘dry bite’ — one without venom. But you can also lose a limb or your life, especially if you have an anaphylactic reaction, or are stuck out in the wilderness.

Remuda – a herd of horses from which ranch hands select their mounts. The word is of Spanish derivation, for “change of horses” and is commonly used in the American West.

Shoat – a young pig, especially newly weaned. The shoats (often called pigs by the characters) hang around Lonesome Dove, killing snakes etc. The shoats in Lonesome Dove are often described as having a ‘blue’ coat. This is a black/grey colour which looks bluish under the light.

Snub a horse – an unbroken horse is sometimes tied (snubbed) to a snubbing post so it can’t run around of its own accord. Also called a ‘patience pole’.

Sorrel – Sorrel is a herb, and the flower on its spike is a brown colour, which is used to describe one of the main colours of horse. Brown, for the uninitiated. You’ll have seen plenty of brown horses. Technically that shade is called ‘sorrel’.  A sorrel horse has no black hairs.

Steer – a castrated male bull. Steerhide is leather made out of a steer’s skin. The saddler uses strips of it to make rope.

Turtles – can be seen in the rivers. Janey calls them ‘snappers’ and is more afraid of them than of rattle snakes. Roscoe assures her that they may be deadly but they’re slow.

Varmint – an animal considered a pest; specifically : one classed as vermin and unprotected by game law.

Water moccasins – the snake that killed the Irish boy when crossing the first river. Another name for cottonmouth.

Withers – the highest part of a horse’s back, lying at the base of the neck above the shoulders. The height of a horse is measured to the withers.


This story happens 1876-1879 or thereabouts. What was going on in America at this time? According to Call, the big towns have things like ‘oprys and streetcars’, though he personally does not hanker after such things, preferring a comfortable life in the wilderness. For these men, the border is the safest place for them to be, because the local Native Americans have been killed, chased off or mainly subdued. For them, travelling through the Wild West will present a hazard, as this is not the case yet for all of North America.

Of the men in Lonesome Dove, only a few can read at all, and Gus is the best educated of them, misplaced apostrophe notwithstanding. He has a primitive introduction to Greek and Latin, though never finished his education. While much of America is illiterate, the best lettered know not only how to write in English but in Greek and Latin as well.

Deets being black has never had a scrap of education and won’t believe Gus when Gus tells him the world is flat. His view on the world is of the superstitious kind. Others in the group don’t know where Canada is exactly. Even the worldly Gus doesn’t know if the Northern Lights are visible from Montana. Newt thinks ‘the north’ is a place rather than a direction, and has never ridden further than San Antonio.

Although Deets is Call’s most reliable man, Call can’t put a black man in charge of anything. It goes without saying that women of the Wild West have no rights and no say whatsoever, and if they achieve anything in life it’s by persuading a white man to help them out. Gus regularly refers to the men as ‘girls’ in a mildly insulting way, pointing out the gender hierarchy each time.

America is still in its Puritan era. Lorena’s clients don’t even like to take their clothes off most of the time, which is what makes Gus and Jake different. Many are scared away when she undresses herself, which is why she does it.

A lot of men are suffering PTSD after the Civil War. Bill Spettle for example ‘died of drink’. There’s a hole in the male demographic. These lands are missing middle aged men. In fact, the male death rate is still so high that if a man sees a married woman he likes the look of he’s inclined to wait until her husband dies rather than give up hope of romance altogether. Gus is especially prone to this way of thinking.

For an account of a slightly earlier time: Review of Mark M. Smith’s “The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War”

Big Indian Raid of ’56 – Clara’s parents were killed in this raid in Austin. The Texas–Indian wars were a series of conflicts between settlers in Texas and the Southern Plains Indians. The Comanche fought hard against the settlers. The years 1856–1858 were particularly vicious and bloody. I can’t work out if the ‘big Indian raid of ’56’ refers to a particular actual big struggle during that time, but the main thing is that the last big big struggle happened in 1858, with the Battle Of Little Robe Creek. This marked the end of Comancheria.

Little Robe Creek, Oklahoma

How much did Gus pay to have a poke at Lorena that time Jake Spoon was out branding dogies?

So when Lorena charged $2 per session it would cost the modern man $50. Roscoe as Deputy Sheriff was earning about $750/month and I guess that’s how he figured he was poorly paid.

Scalping – Gus lives with the fear of being ‘scalped’. His hair turned white age 30, but he still has a head full of it, which makes him nervous because he guesses it’s attractive to Indians. He doesn’t really want to ride up to Montana in case he’s scalped. What is scalping, and was this really a thing? Indeed, ‘Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head of an enemy.’ Some Native American tribes practised scalping from way back (while others never did). The practice lasted until the end of the 19th century in some cases, and was still going on during the Civil War, which I suppose legitimised Gus’s concern for his head. As usually happens, something as gory as this has a lot of mythology around it, and it would seem the white man took up this practice with creepy gusto. There was already a European tradition of using heads as trophies and proof of bounty hunting; scalps were only a small modification on that.

Summary justice –  refers to the trial and punishment of suspected offenders without recourse to a more formal and protracted trial (for example a jury trial) under the legal system. It is also a term sometimes used to describe or justify vigilantism. Call and Gus prefer this kind of ‘justice’ since the only jailers available in the wild west are ‘circuit jailers’, who may or may not turn up to a trail if a criminal is found.

General Lee – Bolivar is under the impression that ‘General Lee freed the slaves.’ Gus points out that it was actually Abe Lincoln who freed the slaves. Robert E. Lee (1807-70) served as a military officer in the U.S. Army, a West Point commandant and the legendary general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-65). He’s famous for being bloody-minded, sacrificing lives in big struggle even while knowing the big struggle was hopeless. These days Lee is generally considered a hero in the south and a traitor in the north, but mostly as a soldier who fought for a cause he believed in. After he seceded in the war, he did spend the rest of his life fostering relations between the north and the south. (This makes me think he’d have fought just as hard for the opposite side had his birthplace been slightly to the north.)

Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail – Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were real men. They are ficionalized in Lonesome Dove by Call and Gus respectively. (Gus = Loving and Call = Goodnight.) The fictional characters are very different in personality and circumstance from the real life men, though the main plot points line up approximately. Also, Gus mentions Charlie Goodnight in his conversation with Blue Duck, so even if these two characters are based on real men, the real men also exist within the story.

Rangers – Gus and Call used to be rangers before they started the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium. But what exactly did rangers do? ‘The Texas Rangers were unofficially created in a call-to-arms written in 1823. Ten years later, on August 10, 1835 Daniel Parker introduced a resolution to the Permanent Council creating a body of rangers to protect the border. The unit was dissolved by the federal authorities during the post–Civil War Reconstruction Era, but was quickly reformed upon the reinstitution of home government. Since 1935, the organisation has been a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety; it fulfills the role of Texas’ state bureau of investigation.’ (Wikipedia) The Texas Rangers is the oldest law enforcement in America. Here’s a description of a ranger’s camp life. (Spoiler alert: Not all that romantic.) Gus and Call also shot their fair share of Indians. But the job ‘wore out’. ‘In the south it became mainly a matter of protecting the cattle herds of rich men like Captain King or Shanghai Pierce, both of whome had more cattle than any one man needed. In thenorth, the Army had finally taken the fight against the Comanches away from the Rangers, and had nearly finished it. He and Call, who had no military rank or standing, weren’t welcomed by the Army; with forts all across the northwestern frontier the free-roving Rangers found that they were always interfering with the Army, or else being interfered with. When the Civil War came, the Governor himself called them in and asked them not to go—with so many men gone they needed at least one reliable troop of Rangers to keep the peace on the border.’

The United States from 1868-1876
Cowboys at a Funeral From The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, Illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia. 1952
Cowboys at a Funeral From The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, Illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia. 1952

Header illustration: The Brave Cowboy, by Joan Walsh Anglund

Lemon girl young adult novella


How To Structure Any (Western-style) Story

Combining my study of film, novels, children’s literature and lyrical short stories, I’ve come up with a nine part story structure.

Other cultures historically carve up stories differently. For instance, East Asian audiences expect different things from story, and also differ in the amount of work they expect to put in.

Not all stories are ‘Complete Narratives’. Mood pieces, character sketches, experimental short stories (such as those by Lydia Davis and descriptions of setting/paintings have more in common with poetry, which become complete narratives only at Step Nine, when the audience completes the arc in an imaginative, collaborative process.

Reading is very creative—it’s not just a passive thing. I write a story; it goes out into the world; somebody reads it and, by reading it, completes it.

Margaret Mahy, New Zealand children’s author
Continue reading “How To Structure Any (Western-style) Story”