The Way West.

My latest post for Insiders covers the Jordan Zimmermann and J.A. Happ signings.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was the second in what would become a series of six novels covering the settlement of what is now the northwestern United States from Montana over to the Pacific, with this novel specifically detailing one wagon train heading out on the Oregon Trail. Although Guthrie’s work all seems to deal with that same topic, The Way West comes across much more as a “buddy movie” sort of book, covering the nascent friendship between the two most significant characters as they assume the leadership of the wagon train and deal with various hazards between Missouri and Oregon.

It’s a real page-turner.

Lije (I assume it’s short for Elijah) Evans is the most central of the various characters in the book, the man who eventually becomes the captain of the caravan by virtue of the respect the other men in the group have for his character and his calmness. Yet it’s Dick Summers, who appeared in the preceding book The Big Sky, who makes the journey possible; he’s an experienced hunter and traveler with nearly supernatural capabilities, able to speak with many different Native American tribes, to hunt all manner of game and fish, and even to forecast the weather, a man without whom the group would likely have faltered somewhere east of Wyoming. The mutual admiration society that develops between these two stoic men is the emotional heart of the book, the one constant through the vicissitudes of the group’s months-long trek across dangerous and hostile terrain.

Guthrie infuses The Way West with plenty of subplots, although they lack the intensity or narrative greed of the two connected strands of the bromance between Evans and Summers and the overarching plot of the trip itself. Evans’ teenaged son Brownie becomes infatuated with the one teenaged girl in the caravan, Mercy McBee, the sexually precocious daughter of two rather worthless parents, who herself has gotten into trouble with the married Curtis Mack. (Mercy and Mack’s wife Amanda both show signs of past sexual abuse or trauma, although it’s never mentioned explicitly in the text.) Guthrie gives the Native Americans a little more humanity and intelligence than I’d expect of a writer of his era, especially as they’re seen through Summers’ eyes; while they’re still a bit of the ‘noble savage’ and are frequently depicted as thieves, Guthrie couldn’t be clearer about his disdain for white settlers who viewed them as less than human or took their lives without cause.

It’s definitely a male-centric novel, as the female characters are mostly props, even Lije’s wife Rebecca, who has some strength to her character but gets relatively little screen time, which adds to the book’s dated feel – we’re already going back over 150 years here, and while it’s historically accurate to have the white guys making all of the decisions and doing the hunting and shooting and fighting, the women on such caravans still had to do a tremendous amount of work. Giving a couple of the women more prominent roles than getting pregnant and cooking dinner would have made the novel a much more enduring read.

I also found it a bit light on action – there are hard times, including conflicts with natives and difficult terrain crossings, but they happen quickly, as if Guthrie very clearly did not want to confuse the people-centric narrative with the tension of a shootout with the Sioux or of a wagon collapsing as the group attempts to ford a rough river. Such scenes give way to longer passages of dialogue or describing the as-yet unspoiled country between the western edge of white civilization and the Pacific coast, which I imagine was part of the Pulitzer committee’s logic in choosing The Way West to win the award. The resulting book, however, is one that’s well-written but dry, lacking so many of the dimensions that make more recent winners (like The Orphan Master’s Son) more colorful, gripping experiences.

Next up: I knocked off Dawn Powell’s Come Back to Sorrento over the weekend and have since begun yet another Pulitzer winner, Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House.