The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie

One last western. A traditional theme of the west is renewal, the chance to leave the past behind and recreate yourself. In A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky Boone Caudhill leaves home after finally standing up to his abusive father. In 1830, he is 17 years old and determined to walk from Kentucky to St. Louis, and from there into the west. Callow and trusting, he runs into trouble almost immediately but eventually makes his way up the Missouri River accompanied by two friends he has picked up along the way: Jim Deakins, a merry and loyal friend who has all the gregariousness that Boone lacks, and Dick Summers, an old mountain man who passes on his skills to the two younger men. Even more than the chance to start over where no one knows him, the skills that he learns from Summers contribute to Boone’s renewal and form the essence of the man he becomes.

Together the three men travel the mountains, from the Seeds-Kee-Dee to the Snake, from Jackson Hole to the Tetons, trapping beaver and anything else they think they can sell, living off the land. After a few years in the mountains, Boone looks like an Indian himself, with his buckskins and feathers. He has learned to appreciate the Indians’ ways and how to accommodate himself to them and eventually finds his way to Teal Eye, daughter of a Blackfoot chief.

The Big Sky is not a romantic tale of dancing with Indians and combining the best of both worlds. Instead, it tells of a savage life where you are in constant danger from animals, the weather, other mountain men, Indians, and all you have is the friend at your back, your weapon, and your own courage. Boone finds that courage in himself, along with the kind of ruthlessness needed to be a trapper in the mountains, far from any kind of law. He finds, too, a way of life that suits him down to the ground. There is an innocence about Boone, a dislike for the complexities and betrayals of other white men. He doesn’t fit in with the Indians, either. He is best off by himself. “This was the way to live, free and easy, with time all a man’s own and none to say no to him . . . Here a man lived natural. Some day, maybe, it would all end, as Summers said it would, but not any ways soon.”

Just as in All the Pretty Horses there is a nostalgia for a time past. It seems as though people head into the wood in search, not just of adventure and a chance to prove themselves, but to reconnect with a way of life, a way of being that is stripped to its essentials, that is more genuine, to discover our essential nature. It is a romantic notion, one that recurs, from the Romantic Movement of the 18th century looking to nature for freedom from the stultifying formalism, to Thoreau with his little cabin and rows of beans, to the back-to-the-land dreams of the 1960s.

Where we get in trouble, though, is in confusing that escape from civilisation with freedom. In Wendell Berry’s essay “The Nature Consumers” collected in The Longlegged House, he describes an encounter in the 1960s with some boatmen on a river near his home in Kentucky who thought that because they were on the water, they were free to do whatever they wanted. “A wild, uninhabited place, such as he wanted to believe he had come to, is by the definition of our frontier experience a free place. One has no bosses there, one is free of responsibility and can do purely according to pleasure. How illusory that is is proved by the fact that the country is inhabited and that some of the inhabitants objected to anyone’s behaving as if it were not. How illusory it is, and how dangerous, is proved by American history: Those pioneer forebears of ours, so attractively free of responsibility, no only settled the country but also used up the fertility and wealth and beauty of it at a rate that made their lives a disgrace to them and a burden to us.”

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