The Big Sky Meets Natty Bumppo

When I was a young person transitioning from the youth area in my branch library to something a little more challenging, I ventured into the young adult area.  At that time (don’t ask), it consisted of many books with uniform bindings and illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.  My favorite of the bunch were the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper. 

There was a sense of nobility to those books even if they could be accused of over-romanticizing the European invasion of the North American continent.  I fell in love with the independent spirit of the character of Natty Bumppo. 

Recently in an attempt to broaden my reading, I picked The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., off of our Friends sale shelf.  Historical or Western, it did not matter.  I was challenging myself.

What I discovered is a book that is about the development of the American West through the eyes of the Europeans who have decided that the land is theirs.  Oddly, the ones who oppose this idea the most in this book are the mountain men who moved west just to be left alone.  When one says, “This here’s Injun country and buffler country, and allus will be,” we know these men are doomed to extinction like the buffalo they hunted.  These are the kind of men who think of “town” as a place where “probably there was more law there than a man could believe, and a peck of rules to go by and run into trouble.” 

Our hero here is Boone Caudill, a surly man on the run from what little his hard scrabble life in Kentucky could have promised him before he decided to be like his fabled uncle and become a mountain man.  Early in the book Boone is still developing but as he matures he turned into the kind of man that Cooper was writing about when he created Natty Bumppo.  Then, as this book moves along, it all goes wrong for Boone and the choices he makes, echoing the choices that the country makes, turn his life in a dark direction. 

There is plenty for a book discussion to debate here.  Boone’s behavior, the destruction of the wilderness, the disappearance of the animals, the treatment of Native Americans, the treatment of women and the meaning of friendship.  A sentence very early in the book states the theme:  “I wouldn’t raise no holler at company, I reckon, if it was company a body could trust.”

I wish I could believe that this would make a transition book for young adults today but I have my doubts.  It is a dense, thick book that at times reads like a foreign language.  Be forewarned, the “n” word is often in the story to describe all sorts of people.  Most people will find reading it not unlike swimming upstream.  I think a book discussion group will find it worth the effort.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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