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R I C H A R D H. C R A C R O F T Brigham Young University The Big Sky: A.B. Guthrie’s Use of Historical Sources* In that penultimate fourth section of A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, wherein the idyllic yet ephemeral reality of Boone Caudill’s West grinds towards its destiny at the hands of a rapacious civiliza­ tion, there is a starkly powerful scene in which the grievously wounded Jim Deakins, who is starving with his snow-bound com­ panions following an Indian encounter in the rugged Marias Pass, feebly whispers to Boone, his leather-tough but caring sidekick: “Look Boone, I ain’t got long. When my mind’s right I can see that much. I’ll be under come tomorrow or next day. Ain’t no use to say I’ll make it. Ain’t no use to try. Hear? Me and you never et dead meat, but meat fair-killed is meat to eat. There’s a swaller or two on my old ribs. Take your knife, Boone. Get it out. I ain’t got long, nohow. Goddam your old skin, you hear? Boone?1 These words, together with Boone’s ensuing revulsion at the idea of such a suggestion and his actions in saving Jim ’s life, sum­ mon to mind George Frederick Ruxton’s exciting Life in the Far West, that veritable handbook of Mountain Man life first serial­ ized in Blackwood’s in 1848. Ruxton’s La Bonte and Killbuck, (counterparts to Boone and Jim ) are halted in a similar mountain pass by Killbuck’s serious illness. After four days of suffering from pain and hunger, Killbuck whispers to his longtime sidekick: “Boy [ , ] . . . This old hoss feels like goin’ under, and that afore long. You’re stout yet, and if thar was meat handy, you’d come round slick. Now, boy, I’ll be under, as I said, afore many hours, and if you don’t raise meat, you’ll be in the same fix. I never eat dead meat myself, and wouldn’t ask no one to do it neither; but meat fair killed is meat any way; so, boy, put your knife in this old niggur’s lights, and help yourself. It’s ‘poor bull’ I know, but maybe my old hump ribs has picking on ’em.” “You’re a good old hos,” answered LaBont^, “but this child ain’t turned niggur yet.”2 •T h is paper was read on October 7, 1970, before the Western Literature Association at Sun Valley, Idaho. 1(Boston: H oughton-M ifflin: Sentry Edition, 1965), p. 308. sEd. by Leroy R . H afen (N orm an: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. 127. 164 Western American Literature The frequent recurrence of this kind of borrowing in The Big Sky reminds the scholar of Western American literature that Guthrie, in his desire to create in Boone Caudill what Wallace Stegner has called “both mountain man and myth, both individual and archetype,”3 has drawn heavily and specifically upon accounts recorded by the men who savored the rugged mountain life prior to and during the years 1830 to 1843. Guthrie’s use of such his­ torical materials to authenticate his nostalgic and impassioned hymn to the passing of an era goes far toward explaining at least part of the success of a book which is at once realistic and roman­ tic, viscerally graphic yet almost gently poetic. Sometime in 1938, Guthrie, a successful newspaperman in Kentucky, and author of a less than excellent western novel, M ur­ ders at Moon Dance, determined to write a novel about the Moun­ tain Man, a novel which would express not only Guthrie’s love affair with his native region in general and the mountains and streams of Montana in particular, but one which would capture as much as possible the virile reality of the trapper’s life. Reject­ ing Stewart Edward White’s so-called “Sunday-school representa­ tion” of the generally amoral Mountain Men, Guthrie determined that his projected work would be authentic in tone and fact, a story of the . . . fur-hunters who followed hard on the heels of Lewis...


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