“Serena Claudill heard a step outside and the squeak of the cabin door and knew that John was coming in. She kept poking at the fireplace, in which a hen was browning. “ – The Big Sky, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
Why have I not read this book before? The Big Sky could be considered, in my humble opinion, a contender for the status of the Great American Novel. I am surprised it is not more widely read or referenced. Where Lonesome Dove is described by many as the ultimate novel of the wild American West, McMurtry definitely owes a debt to Guthrie who perhaps launched the genre with this much grittier, atmospheric, and perhaps literary song to the lost wild places and people of this country. The Big Sky is set decades earlier than LD, in the 1830s when the northwest part of the US was the territory of the Crow, Blackfeet, and Sioux. The only white men in those parts were a few mountain men and trappers. The book traces the journey of three white men, Dick Summers, Jim Deakins, and the enigmatic Boone Claudill from the Kentucky fronteir deep into the wilderness as they hunt for beaver to trap and trade. Boone is a young man running away from home, and as he comes of age and heads deeper and deeper into the wilderness, he leaves his cultural upbringing behind and becomes more assimilated into the land and the native people. Just before the climax of the novel, he is married to a Blackfoot woman and lives with the tribe (described as the fiercest and most resistant to white interaction) as a “white Indian,” in perfect harmony with his adopted way of life. Here is how a white man encountering Boone at this point describes him:
A strange man, Boone Claudill, riding rawboned and slouched at the head of the column while his Indian braids swung to the swing of his horse. A strange man, with moodiness in him, and quickness to anger, and the promise of childlike savagery….Peabody concluded that he was more Indian than white man. Outwardly, he was hardly white man at all. He wore the clothes of an Indian and carried a bag of amulets—a medicine bundle as it was called. His voice was rough and deep in his chest, even when the sounds it made were English sounds. His face was dark-eyed, weathered, and often inscrutable. He had a squaw for a wife.
Claudill could be a difficult man, even a dangerous one, Peabody imagined. One of gentler breeding sometimes felt uncertain and impotent in his presence, as if the strength and forwardness and primitive masculinity of the man dwarfed any disciplined powers.
And do not many people now feel “uncertain and impotent” in the midst of true wilderness–if we can still find it? One of the great themes of the novel is the destruction of the wild by the encroachment of civilization. Many characters discuss this throughout the novel—some saying that even in the 1830s it was already being lost and others denying that it ever could be. Of course, we the readers and certainly Guthrie in the 1940s when he wrote it, know how deep and irrevocable that loss has been. The climax of the novel occurs when Boone, at the point of his most intense assimilation with the land and the native Americans, makes a choice that favors the white mentality of Westward expansion. It, too, is irrevocable and changes his life forever. The ending is pure brilliance—which I won’t give away much more—in its ambiguity about Boones’ fate.
The novel is written in the vernacular and there is language that could be confusing at best and objectionable at worst to the contemporary reader. But just like, say, Huckleberry Finn, the story is so much more than the language and yet equally dependent on it for the mood and setting it provides. I never have a problem reading and keeping the context and time in mind. Additionally, for the contemporary reader who is at all sensitive to stereotypes and romanticized portrait of native peoples that have plagued American history, cinema, literature and the like, many aspects of this novel are troubling both in language and characterization. Again, I can contextualize it as Guthrie writing in the 1940s and writing much closer in view of the previous century just like Margaret Mitchell did with Gone with the Wind, and thereby giving modern readers a window on the shape and complexity of stereotypes and prejudices as they developed in the 20th century.
I am very much looking forward to reading Guthrie’s follow-up novel, The Way West, for which he won the Pulitzer. Can’t imagine it getting much better than The Big Sky, but can’t wait to find out.