THE WAY WEST. (1949). A. B. Guthrie, Jr. ****.
If one were able to have read this novel in the year of its publication, he would have been amazed at the author’s ability to depict character within his players and striking features of the landscape through which they moved. It was a far cry from most of the western novels that came before. Reading this in 2012 spawns a disappointment because all of the innovative features of this novel have now become cliche. Its effect on subsequent writers was that profound. Guthrie’s novel continues the adventures of one of his mountain men who we met earlier in “The Big Sky,” Dick Summers. He has been settled down for quite a while now in Independence, MO, when he was approached by a group of men asking him to be their guide in their proposed trip across the country to “Oregon Territory.” The buried mountain man within him could not resist this chance to revisit his old haunts, and takes up the offer. We get to meet all of the members of the train as the story develops, and to explore their various reasons for leaving the surety of Missouri for the unknown of Oregon. The author had an amazing ability to explore each of these “pioneers” in detail to the point that we felt as if we knew them outselves. The other outstanding feature of this novel is the depiction of the various territory through which the wagon train moved. It felt as if you were crossing every river and stream and mountain along with them. You also met each of the various Indians that they came across in their travels and made aware of their individual tribal personalities. Films were made of both this novel and “The Big Sky,” which I plan to see when I find them. I’d like to see how the directors handled this type of new material in an old genre. In any event, this novel – which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – is still a page turner today. Recommended.