Critical Evaluation

In the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking romances, The Big Sky is distinguished among other fine historical novels for its realism and sharp insight into the psychology of the American Western pioneer. Like Cooper’s adventure fiction, A. B. Guthrie’s book explores the clash between two cultures: that of the retreating Indian tribes and that of the advancing Yankee frontiersmen. As the frontier expands westward, the Indians are forced to surrender their lands, their freedom, and their spiritual heritage. In the unequal struggle, the white pioneer, too, loses a portion of his heritage: a sense of idealism.

The “big sky” of Guthrie’s title is the vast open land of the frontier, once teeming with wildlife, but slowly—even within the chronology of the novel, 1830 to 1843—changing, with the slaughter of buffalo, beaver, and other creatures of the forest and plains. In his descriptions of the land, its vegetation, and its animals, as well as of the rough frontiersmen, Guthrie has the eye of a naturalist; the smallest detail does not escape his attention. From The Big Sky, one learns how deer, elk, and mountain goats survive in the wilderness, how rivermen operate a keelboat, how fur hunters kill and strip game, and how mountain men endure the bitter Northern winters. Unlike many other adventure stories treating the West, Guthrie’s novel is without sentimentality. For the hunters, traders, and marginal farmers of the outlying territories, life is hard and often...

(The entire section is 622 words.)