The body count rises in this third novel of McMurtry's four-book tale of the Berrybenders, an oddball English family traipsing across the American West in the 1830s. Beset by misfortune and their own incompetence, the family encounter death or gruesome injury everywhere they pitch a tent. Ears are sliced off, heads are scalped, enemies' jaws are shattered, smallpox wipes out Indian tribes. While the first two volumes were farcical and humorous, this one is decidedly less lighthearted. These pioneers both meet hardship and inflict it.
As in its predecessors, the narrative is choppy, and only a few of the all too many characters—62 total—are fully developed. But the story has become edgier and more ominous. In this tale of the exploration, and exploitation, of the West, McMurtry is telling us something about our checkered past—and perhaps about our uncertain present.