Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Way West

[Cross-posted at Naked Without Books]

I finally got back to the Pulitzer Project with The Way West, the 1950 fiction winner by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. The novel, which takes place in 1845, features Dick Summers, a mountain-man-turned-farmer who was also a character in the prequel, The Big Sky. Summers reminded me a great deal of Woodrow Call from Lonesome Dove, except a little more gregarious. Strong and silent, Summers is the type of character we've come to demand in a novel about the west.

Summers is asked to lead a wagon train from Missouri (near Independence) to Oregon. His wife has just died of fever and he misses his mountain days, so he agrees. The hardships of the pioneers and their conflicts with one another are detailed, as is the vast country through which they travel.

The captain of the wagon train is actually a guy named Tadlock, who is full of self-importance and one putrid idea (shooting all the dogs on the wagon train, wanting to carry on business as usual instead of tending to a dying man) after another. Not too far down the trail, realization dawns on the other pioneers that Tadlock is ill-equipped to lead and Lije Evans, a likable giant of a man is elected to take over and grows in confidence about his leadership ability as he ably handles several life-and-death situations. He and Dick Summers also have a fine bromance.

I was surprised and delighted with Guthrie's flash of sly humor in the chapter where the all-male council of the wagon train gets together and debates whether it's right to ask the womenfolk to cook with buffalo and cow chips. It's a no-brainer because they're crossing the Great Plains and wood as a fuel source is in scant supply but there's still delicacy and formality amongst these rough and travel-weary pioneers. When one of the council, a man named McBee (who is the forerunner of what would one day be "trailer trash") dares to refer to the substance in question as "shit", the others recoil from him like characters in a Jane Austen novel.

Sometimes Guthrie's prose gets a little purply as he gets caught up in describing the scenery on the way to Oregon, but one can hardly blame him since the pioneers are seeing views they'd never seen before. Another tiny complaint that I have is that some of the characters are briefly introduced and followed then only seen again rarely, in passing. However, there are two sharply drawn minor characters. One is Curtis Mack, a philanderer who seduces then abandons the teenaged Mercy McBee. Mack is a spineless, gutless bastard but he knows he's loathsome and struggles mightily with his shame and guilt. The other is Judith Fairman, whose misery from being pregnant and on the trail increases tenfold to include grief and remorse when her understandably overprotective behavior contributes to her small son's fatal accident. By the way, the son's name is Tod, which is the German word for death. Coincidence or Guthrie serving up some grim humor?

My favorite thing about The Way West is the sun-baked (western version of 'hard-boiled') dialogue. Here's the taciturn Dick Summers talking about getting the wagon train across the treacherous Snake River: "It ain't easy, but it ain't beyond doing. We'll get it done."

The ending of the novel was the prose equivalent of the ending of one of those 1950s Cinemascope westerns with a big rousing triumphant narration of Lije Evans' thoughts as he gets his first gander at Oregon. One can almost hear the orchestra music swelling, blaring out Aaron Copeland and see the huge yellow leathery-looking letters of the end credits rolling. It came off a little forced.

I was expecting to like The Way West more than I did, but in retrospect, it might have been better to read The Big Sky and The Way West together as if the two books were one big story. I'm almost sure that Guthrie won the Pulitzer on the strength of both novels combined.

The Way West was made into a movie in 1967 with Robert Mitchum as Summers, Kirk Douglas as Tadlock, Richard Widmark as Lije Evans and a very young Sally Field (pre-Flying Nun) as Mercy McBee and was directed by Andrew V. MacLaglen who directed Shenandoah (1965) which is one of my all time-favorites. Although The Way West received rather tepid reviews, I'm intrigued by that casting and would like very much to see it for myself.