Saturday, May 23, 2015

Book Review: The Big Sky

 © 1947 by A. B. Guthrie Jr.

The blurb above the title on the cover of my copy of this classic Western declares it to be, in all caps, “the towering novel of one unforgettable hero on America’s wild frontier.”

Well, yes and no.

It is undoubtedly a towering novel.  But after 367 heavy-on-description low-on-spoken word pages, I am convinced that the unforgettable part of this story was the wild frontier.  The hero, Boone Caudill, not so much.

But more about Boone in a bit.

The Big Sky is a gorgeous love letter to the untamed American frontier – the frontier west of the Mississippi and west beyond the Rockies, in the quarter-century before the Civil War.  Places like the Snake River, Flathead Post, Fort MacKenzie.  The French and the British.  The Blackfeet, Crows, Sioux, Assiniboines (those’re the “Rock” Indians), the Ree, the Peigan.  The struggle to keep one’s belly fed and one’s scalp intact, all while trying to outwit a thousand enemies and Mother Nature herself, all integral and essential to the rough and unforgiving crucible of the western American frontier.

Boone Caudill is the focus of the story, though I am forced to admit he is not the ideal voice to tell it.  True, he is the epitome of early 19th century frontiersman, a mountain man’s mountain man, a White man who turns his back on White ways, stronger than the Indians who prey upon and them come to fear and respect him, a man who knows what he wants and wants what he knows, lives on the meat of his kills, tougher than the winds and the snows and the rains.

Taciturn by nature, Boone’s desire to avoid communication and interaction – save for other similar-minded mountain men – is frustrating.  In retrospect, I suppose I must compliment Guthrie for writing around this and bringing a two-dimensional character into the third dimension.  He does this by introducing two much more likeable (and normal, at least by wimpy 21st century standards of manliness) companions, Dick Summers and Jim Deakins.  Dick is an older, wiser master who apprentices Boone and Jim, and Jim is an easygoing, light-hearted and humanizing influence on the force of nature that Boone becomes.

Divided into a half-dozen or so fifty-page chunks of vignette, The Big Sky spans thirteen winters of rugged frontier life.  We’re introduced to Boone as a tough lad of nineteen, beating his drunken and abusive pap and hitting the road in fear of the repercussions.  Silent and brooding, he meets up with Jim Deakins, a genial fellow with the misfortune of transporting a dead body from one state to another by cart.  Jim takes an inexplicable liking to Boone, and saves his hide after the latter is swindled out of his possessions, framed for robbery, scourged by the local sheriff, and sentenced to hard labor.

The two take on with a Frenchman, Jourdannais, who has schemes of taking his boat, men, trading supplies – and a young Indian princess, Teal Eye – up the Missouri into uncharted Blackfeet territory to make a killing.  In profits, that is.  There they meet master hunter Dick Summers, who teaches the boys how to hunt, track, and live off the land.  A terrible fate falls upon the voyage, and the three begin a dozen years of mountain life.

Boone fights Indians, woos Teal Eye, guides men across the snowy Rockies with tragic and near-tragic results, survives against all odds, and succumbs to some awful moral mistakes at the end that will haunt him the rest of his life.

The novel contains some of the vivid nature writing I’ve read since Tolkien and Zane Grey, though obviously more grounded in historical reality than Tolkien and not as sugar-sweet as Grey.  Me, I’ll never hike the passes of the Rockies, navigate the Missouri and her tributaries, or even trap a rabbit for my dinner.  But thanks to Mr. Guthrie and The Big Sky, I feel certain that I already have.

Grade: B+

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