The first in an epic western saga that spans over a hundred years in the course of six novels. Boone Caudill travels west to the Rockies, leaving his abusive father to find a life of freedom in the wild. He wins the love of a beautiful Blackfoot princess, a woman willing to love him despite his wild ways. Their lives become forever entwined through adventure, travel, and eventually betrayal. He finds that freedom comes at a price, higher than he ever could have imagined.
First published in 1947 and set between 1830 and 1843, A.B. Guthrie's classic novel of mountain men and the opening of the west to white settlement is both a tribute to the breathtaking beauty of the vast northern plains and Rocky Mountains, and a eulogy for the territory in its unspoiled state. His descriptions of the landscape are like the best of paintings; they evoke the images, the light, the sounds, and the feeling, the precious loneliness of the landscape.
Guthrie also creates memorable characters: Boone Caudill and Jim Deakins and Dick Summers will live forever in my mental cast of favorites. These are not completely idealized heroes, although they do lean in that direction. They are tough and, to greater or lesser degrees, stone-hearted. But they each have redeeming qualities to balance out the brutal self-determination. Boone, too quick to judge, is nonetheless deeply loyal and unflinchingly honest. Jim is optimistic and warm, never underestimating the risks inherent in the adventures to which he is inexorably drawn. Dick, the father figure (Boone's own callous and vicious father failing to serve), is the quintessential hunter: he understands the land, its human occupants, and the creatures that roam her vast expanses.
Sexism and racism run deep in the narrative; it is a product of its time. And yet you get the sense that Guthrie knew things would change, that they must change. You can also sense that he grieves the invasion of white civilization into a territory that was never perfect, never fully peaceful or easy, but untainted and beautiful in the simplicity of its seasons.
Spanning the years of 1830 to 1843, the book is full of the adventures of Boone, his friend Jim Deacon and their mentor Dick Summers. Boone grows to admire Summers a great deal but although Summers can see that this way of life is ending, Boone has no desire to be anything but a trapper and hunter. He dismisses any idea that the country could change and that settlers will come. Although one can’t help but root for him, Boon Caldill is far from perfect. Much like the father that he ran away from, he is hot tempered and stubborn. He never learned how to express his feelings and he tends to act without thinking about the consequences.
The Big Sky is an epic adventure novel, set in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming an area that the author knows wells and obviously loved. This is a skillful depiction of how the west was able to capture the hearts of these independent men whose time was so colorful yet short-lived. While not setting out to romanticize these men, nevertheless, reading of them makes one yearn to experience that lifestyle, if only for a short time. Beautifully written and full of lyrical descriptions, The Big Sky recreates the savagery and splendor of this untouched frontier.
Set on the American frontier from 1830 to 1843, this novel is centered on Boone Caudill, who the introduction tells us, is destined to become a savage "mountain man." Problem is from the beginning there isn't anything very civilized about him. He leaves home at seventeen after punching out his abusive father and stealing his prize rifle, and his even more cherished razor strop--made from an Indian's scalp. Before he's eighteen he'll be collecting his own Indian scalps--and will have contracted "the clap" from a prostitute. Moreover, well more than half-way through the novel, the only female character of note, Teal Eye, a blackfoot tribe member, is practically mute. And the stereotypical, wince-worthy depiction of Native Americans didn't help, even if I make allowances for the filter of the white characters' perspective and that contemporary views might be overly romanticized. I mean, "heap?" And "how" as a greeting?
Also, the narrative is frequently punctuated with the word "nigger." I'm not mentioning this because I'm accusing Guthrie of being racist, any more than Alice Walker or Toni Morrison or Mark Twain for that matter are guilty of being racist when using such words in fiction to depict character. It's rarely if ever used to even refer to blacks--apparently the "mountain men" often use it to refer to themselves. But it's one aspect of the novel that made this a tiresome and unpleasant read for me. There's not one character that engaged my sympathy or interest. Those who care far less about characters being likeable and have more tolerance for brutality and graphic violence might find this more enjoyable.
Read Samoa Aug 2003
A.B. Guthrie's "The Big Sky" is such a novel.
It is raw as the buffalo liver the frontiersmen eat still steaming in the moments after the kill.
The talk and dialog tells you something
There is no political correct speech. The word "nigger" must appear a hundred times. I can see them marching around the New York Times building, "Ban this book!" Perhaps, "Burn this book!"
Yet this rough-hewn story is from America's very soul. What we were like 170 years ago...and for A. B. Guthrie, they were second-hand stories from his father, who listened to the wizened old coots in the early moments of the 20th century, who had lived through the 1830s and 1840s.
This story makes one ache for more.
If you saw the movie by the same name, have no worries about spoilers. While the Howard Hawks 1952 has some of the characters, it omits key figures, turns the protagonist Boone Caudill into a pleasant side-kick to the secondary figure in the book, Caudill's best friend Jim Deakins. The movie is enjoyable. It is NOTHING like this novel.
I finished The Big Sky several days ago. I cannot dislodge it from my waking thoughts!
I have often thought of books that perfectly describe the American Frontier. This is one of them. My personal list:
"Two Years Before the Mast" R. H. Dana
"Roughing It" Samuel Clemens
"Life on the Mississippi" Samuel Clemens
"Huckleberry Finn" Samuel Clemens
"Moby Dick" Herman Melville (yes, for the sea is a frontier, too)
"The Galvanized Yankees" by Dee Brown
"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown
"Little Big Man" by Thomas Berger
"Hands Up!" by Gen. D. J. Cook
P.S. I found a line in The Big Sky that may have inspired Thomas Berger: "...he was a little man and a big man." Who knows!
However, I found Guthrie's writing style to be somewhat dry and uninteresting to me and I was thrown sometimes by his use of various dialects and words multiply meanings. In some parts of the book, I didn't feel the writing was especially clear. While there were many parts of the book that aided the American history buff in understanding the west, I found the plot to be uninteresting and even though there was a twist at the end of the novel, I somehow didn't feel unsatisfied.
I enjoyed Deakins' theological disquisitions. "You can't beat God for bein' picky. No, sir. If he catches you playin' cards or sayin' one swear word...it's to hell with you forever and ever...Even thinkin' is mighty dangerous. As a man thinketh, that's how he is, and to hell with him ag'in. Why you reckon he gave us a thinker then?...God is some busybody."
Guthrie takes us up the Missouri, a slow fight all the way, across the plains, into the mountains and back. He creates for the reader the palpable sense of the openness and wildness of the West. Yet the book steps back from fully romanticizing the end of the mountain man era. The story is often disturbing, not the least in Boone Caudill's quick and often brutal ways.
Highest recommendation for anyone interested in the American West.