Review

By Sorrow's River: The Berrybender Narratives, Book 3

by Larry McMurtry



The settling of the United States by European interests has within
the past 100 years swung radically between glorification and
vilification in the telling. Larry McMurty's Berrybender
Narratives, now in its third volume with the publication of BY
SORROW'S RIVER, takes a middle, and more realistic, course. One
comes away from the pages of each volume wondering how the genetic
strain of the pioneers endured. Mutilation, and likely death, came
suddenly and without warning from multiple sources, whether by
animal, nature or fellow human beings.

BY SORROW'S RIVER follows the narrative thread of its two
predecessors, SIN KILLER and THE WANDERING HILL, in that it follows
what is left of the Berrybender family on their ill-fated trek
through the unsettled Western frontier. Lord Berrybender, the
besotted, irredeemable family patriarch, is the catalyst for this
journey. He is determined to hunt more and more buffalo, even as
his family members and his bodily appendages are whittled away by
accident and hostile design. It is Tasmin Berrybender, the Lord's
irrepressible daughter, who remains the focus of the narrative.
Married to Jim Snow, the Sin Killer in the first novel, and yet
almost desperately in love with the (almost) non-responsive Pomp
Charbonneau, Tasmin is a fish out of water in the American West but
seems to be the only crew member capable of dealing with her
surroundings.

BY SORROW'S RIVER chronicles the Berrybender trek across the Great
Plains toward Santa Fe. It is by far the most interesting and
fastest-moving of the Berrybender volumes to date. This is not to
slight its predecessors; it is simply an acknowledgment that
McMurtry, having ensconced the nucleus of his characters in place,
can now introduce new characters and situations at will. And what a
motley, entertaining group he introduces! There are a pair of
journalists --- one British, one French --- who are set on crossing
the Plains via a hot air balloon. Their appearance is at once
uproarious and poignant, for Le Partezon, a legendary and feared
Sioux war chief, sees the end of his people foretold in the
presence of this rudimentary but still revolutionary air travel.
There is The Ear Taker, an Indian whose specialty is creeping up on
his victims while they sleep and slicing a trophy ear off with a
razor-sharp knife. He cannot be caught because he has never been
seen. There are hardships to be endured, and death is an
ever-present companion.

McMurtry keeps his narrative lively and unpredictable. One never
knows when a dialogue between characters will be interrupted by
sudden and irrevocable violence --- which, by the way, is a
mainstay of the book. McMurtry does not shrink from graphic
descriptions; if you've been tempted to switch to a vegan diet, but
you've never had the impetus to make the jump, some of the
descriptions of cattle slaughtering in this book may be enough to
help you break your meat-eating habits. BY SORROW'S RIVER is not
for the faint of heart or, for that matter, the weak of gag
reflex.

You can heighten your enjoyment of BY SORROW'S RIVER by reading SIN
KILLER and THE WANDERING HILL first, if only to gain a feel and
familiarity for each of the characters and their situations. Don't
get too attached to anyone, however. McMurtry won't hesitate to
kill off a sympathetic character, though he does not do so
gratuitously. Practically every word of BY SORROW'S RIVER serves to
advance the plot along in some way. The only downside to this fine
saga is that a year will be too long to wait for the final
volume.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011

By Sorrow's River: The Berrybender Narratives, Book 3
by Larry McMurtry

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Fiction, Western
  • Hardcover: 347 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743233042
  • ISBN-13: 9780743233040