The Way West is an account of a wagon-train journey from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon in 1845. On a superficial level, it is a realistic story of a group of pioneers who complete their arduous venture without major disaster. Although one family turns back, a man and a boy die, and a dissident group swings south to California, the pioneers reach their Oregon destination, ready to begin a new life.
A second plot line in the novel traces the development of a social structure, suggesting that the wagon-train organization finally shaped will be the basis for a new kind of society that is to be formed in the new settlements. In Independence, Missouri, Irvine Tadlock organizes the wagon train and makes sure that he is elected leader of it. His insistence on authority, discipline, and order, however, comes to be resented by the pioneers, both because he lacks real knowledge of the frontier and because the wilderness demands a flexibility and an independence of thought that Tadlock does not have. The turning point of this plot line comes midway in the novel, when Tadlock is deposed and Lije Evans is made the new leader. Although Evans is not sure of his own abilities, he proves himself to be the kind of leader needed in the new country.
The third level of action in The Way West is psychological. As the wagon train moves through the spring and summer months, facing external dangers and internal dissension, Guthrie penetrates the minds of several characters, revealing the doubts and dreams which set them on the trail to Oregon and tracing their responses to the challenges of the journey and to the wilderness through which they pass. Appropriately, at the end of the novel, Guthrie focuses on the characters who have responded best to the experience of the trail: Dick Summers, who has reaffirmed his love of life in the wilderness; Lije Evans, who has proven himself as a leader of men in the new land; Rebecca, who has cheerfully endured the hardships of the journey and compassionately accepted her new daughter-in-law; Brownie Evans, now a man, not a boy; and Mercy McBee Evans, now a woman and a loving wife, not a romantic girl.