I hadn’t read, indeed hadn’t thought of, a Guthrie since The Big Sky, lo, these many years past. A buddy got hooked on him recently and has read all six of the Guthrie settling-of-the-west series in the last year or so. I finally decided to join him for at least part of the trip. The Way West, an Oregon Trail wagon train tale, is a sequel to The Big Sky, which is a mountain man saga. It received the 1950 Pulitzer and became a big film in 1967 starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, so it has definitely carved a place for itself in American popular lit. Guthrie has some impressive screen credits outside his novels, including the classic, Shane.
Someone once told me that there are two kinds of stories–1) Someone goes on a journey; 2) A stranger comes to town. Sane is the archetypal #2. But back to The Way West.
Beaver trapping and mountain men are history in the spring of 1845 Missouri when the Way West wagon train germinates. Guthrie lets the journey structure his story. He begins with the formation of a group containing men and women who seek, variously, land, adventure, American domination of the continent, et al, and follows them and across what was to become a well-worn trail before leaving them in sight of Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River in early September.
We get a nice collection of characters–an overbearing Captain, a mountain man who’s tried to settle down but can’t quite (especially since his wife’s death) a preacher trying to convert the heathen, a few men of weak and/or vengeful character, a couple of 17-year-olds feeling their oats, and a bunch of strong, stoic Victorian-era women. Guthrie gives us plentiful details of the preparations. Everyone required to bring certain provisions, to obey certain rules, a provisional government. He establishes a language that probably never exactly existed in history, but serves to help create a world for the book:
Up the Sweetwater and over the Southern Pass and down the Sandy to the Green he was seeing the wild goats, or antelopes as people were calling them now, and the young ones running with them, light and skittery as thistle bloom. And it came on toward night, and the sun was down and the fire of its setting dead, and the coyotes were beginning to yip in the hills and the stars to light up, and there was the good smell of aspen smoke in his nose.
People wouldn’t let a man with a grief do anything for himself. They brought him meat and bread and cake . . . and they tidied up his place and build a walnut box and dug a grave and the women laid the body out. And all of them stayed around–the men smoking and chewing and talking pigs and crops and the women talking women’s talk–until the body was in the ground and the earth thrown on top.
As such journeys go both in history and literature, the train suffers no horrendous disasters. There are deaths, disease, Indians, calamities–tests of character and proving grounds for concepts of justice and right–but no massacres, no incinerating wildfires, no marauding hordes (though there are hostile Indians). Guthrie’s emphasis is not on catastrophe, but on character. He spends many pages inside the hearts and heads of key actors in the drama, exploring the motivations behind the many acts of courage and betrayal that occur as individuals create and react to each crisis. Thrown together in circumstances where they can’t easily escape one another, character flaws hidden in gentler environments get thrown into relief, and the resulting actions have consequences they never would in a context like a town or city where they might be absorbed or even ignored. Secrets will out, and how people react when they are revealed is in turn a test of that character. Guthrie is masterful at exploring the psyche this way.
Still, I have a hard time with the writing when his language gets excessive and he starts with his exclamation marks:
He held tight as the mountains fell away. He said not yet, not yet, while in his gaze a softer country swam. Not yet, not yet, and then ahead, beyond a grass-green prairie, mellow in the sun, the lines of Fort Vancouver with a great ship standing by! Across from it, unseen in the wooded flow of land, the waters of Willamette!
For all my objections, though, I think no one has done this as well. And if you have a hunger to learn some history of America’s western frontier, and would rather have a story than a textbook, A.B. Guthrie’s your man.