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Last Updated on September 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Written by A. B. Guthrie Jr. in 1947, The Big Sky is an adventure novel set on the Western frontier. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Boone Caudill—who, at the beginning of the novel, is living with his family in Kentucky. Boone’s father is a bully who physically abuses Boone, his brother, and their mother. One evening, as Boone is being beaten, Boone hits his father on the head. Knowing that his father is seriously injured, maybe even dead, Boone steals his father’s rifle and runs away from home.

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Boone’s maternal uncle, Zeb Calloway, lives an “uncivilized” life in the mountains, and Boone resolves to follow in his footsteps and heads West. While walking, he meets Jim Deakins. Jim has a mule and a cart, and he takes Boone to Louisville. Jim, unhappy with his life, decides to join Boone.

Boone and Jim are recruited onto the Mandan, a French keelboat traveling up the Missouri River. Also on the boat is Teal Eye, a twelve-year-old Native American who has been kidnapped by a rival Indian tribe. Boone falls in love with her at first sight, but she disappears when the boat reaches Blackfoot country. Not long after, the boat is attacked by a Native American tribe, and the only survivors are Boone, Jim, and hunter and guide Dick Summers.

The three men survive by hunting and trapping, and Boone falls in love with the outdoor life. However, Dick, deciding he is too old for the life of a mountain man, returns to a farming life in Missouri. Boone wants to find Teal Eye, and he and Jim enter Indian territory, where they find many have been killed by smallpox. Teal Eye has survived, however, and she becomes Boone’s wife. Boone and Jim embrace the tribe’s way of life and continue to live among them.

Later, Teal Eye becomes pregnant and soon gives birth to a son. To Boone’s disappointment, the son is blind and has red hair. Boone thinks that Teal Eye has cheated on him with Jim, as Jim also has red hair. Boone proceeds to shoot and kill his closest friend and, leaving Teal Eye, flees to his home state of Kentucky. When he returns home, his mother reveals that though their immediate family does not have red hair, red hair does run in their family, filling Boone with regret and guilt over his unjust, violent actions.

Unable to settle back into a “civilized” life in Kentucky, Boone leaves once again and visits Dick Summers in Missouri. He tells him what he did to Jim and Teal Eye: “This here hand done it. . . . I kilt Jim.” Unwilling to spend the night with Dick, Boone leaves.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218

In 1830, Boone Caudill sets out alone for St. Louis and the West after a fight with his father. Taking his father’s rifle with him, he heads for Louisville to get out of the state before his father can catch him. On the road, he meets Jim Deakins, an easygoing redhead, and the two decide to go west together. At Louisville, where the sheriff and Boone’s father are waiting for the runaway, he and Jim are separated. Boone escapes by swimming the Ohio River to the Indiana shore.

When Boone is falsely accused of attempted theft and jailed, Jim, who followed him after their separation, steals the sheriff’s keys and releases him. Together the boys continue west.

In St. Louis, they sign on as part of the crew of the keelboat Mandan. Most of the crew are French, as is the leader, Jourdonnais. The boat is headed for the country of the Blackfeet with a store of whiskey and other goods to trade for furs. Teal Eye, the young daughter of a Blackfoot chief, is also on board the ship. She was separated from her tribe for some time; Jourdonnais hopes to gain the friendship of the Indians by returning the young woman to them.

The keelboat moves slowly upstream by means of poles, a tow rope, and oars. Boone and Jim find a friend in Dick Summers, the hunter for the Mandan, whose job is to scout for Indians and keep the crew supplied with meat. He makes Boone and Jim his assistants. Jourdonnais is worried about getting to Blackfoot country before winter, and he works the crew hard. At last, they pass into the upper river beyond the mouth of the Platte River. All the greenhorns, including Boone and Jim, are initiated by being dunked in the river and having their heads shaved.

At last they are in buffalo country. Summers takes Boone with him to get some fresh meat. Attacked by a hunting party of Sioux, the white men escape unharmed, but Summers expects trouble from the hostile Indians farther along the line. A few days later, the Mandan is ambushed by a large Indian war party. Only the swivel gun on the deck of the boat saves the men from death.

Shortly before the Mandan arrives at Fort Union, two men try to sabotage the cargo. At Fort Union, Jourdonnais accuses the American Fur Company trader McKenzie of trying to stop him. McKenzie denies the charge, but he tries to argue Jourdonnais out of continuing upriver and offers to pay double value for the Mandan’s cargo. Jourdonnais refuses. At Fort Union, Boone meets his Uncle Zeb, an old-time mountain man. He predicts that the days of hunting and trapping in open country are nearly gone. Boone and Jim, however, do not believe him.

When the Mandan arrives in Blackfoot country, Teal Eye escapes. The crew begins to build a fort and trading post. One day, Indians attack and kill all but the three hunters: Boone, Jim, and Summers. For seven years these three hunt together, and Summers makes real mountain men out of the other two. In the spring of 1837, the three head for a rendezvous on the Seeds-Kee-Dee River, where they can sell their furs and gamble, drink, and fight with other mountain men. They take with them a half-witted Blackfoot named Poordevil.

At the rendezvous, Boone kills a man who said that he was going to take Poordevil’s scalp. Then, after they have their fill of women and liquor, the three friends leave the camp. Summers, however, does not go hunting with them. No longer able to keep up the pace of the mountain men, he goes back to settle in Missouri. Boone, Jim, and Poordevil head up the Yellowstone toward Blackfoot country. The journey is Boone’s idea. He knows that Teal Eye is now a grown woman. Her beauty remained in his memory all those years, and he wants her for his wife. On the way to Three Forks, Boone steals a horse from the Crow Indians and takes a Crow scalp, two actions that will help him make friends with the Blackfoot Indians.

They come upon a Blackfoot village ravaged by smallpox, but Boone refuses to stop until he is certain that Teal Eye is dead. At last he locates her. She is with a small band led by Red Horn, her brother, who sells her to Boone.

Life is good to Boone. For five years he lives happily among the Blackfoot Indians with Teal Eye as his wife. Jim lives in the Blackfoot camp also, but he often leaves for months at a time to go back down the Missouri. He craves companionship, while Boone enjoys living away from crowds. On one of his trips, Jim meets Elisha Peabody, a shrewd Yankee speculating upon the future prosperity of the Oregon Territory, who wants someone to show him a pass where wagons can cross the mountains. Jim and Boone contract to show him a suitable pass. Before Boone leaves, Teal Eye tells him that he will have a son when he returns.

The expedition has bad luck. Indians steal all the horses and wound Jim badly. Then snow falls, destroying all chances to get food. Finally, Boone is able to shoot some mountain goats. Jim recovers from his wound, and the party goes ahead on foot. Boone and Jim show Peabody the way across the mountains and into the Columbia Valley. It is spring when Boone returns to Teal Eye and his son.

The child, born blind, has a tinge of red in his hair. The baby’s blindness brings a savage melancholy to Boone. Then some of the old Indians hint that the red hair shows the child is Jim’s baby. Boone lays a trap to catch Jim with Teal Eye. Jim, suspecting nothing, finds Teal Eye alone in her lodge; he tries to comfort her about her child’s blindness and the ugly mood of her husband. Boone mistakes the intent of Jim’s conversation. Entering the lodge, he shoots Jim in the chest, killing him. He curses Teal Eye and leaves the Blackfoot camp. Then he heads back to Kentucky to see his mother before she dies.

In Kentucky, he finds his brother married and taking care of the farm. Boone grows restless. Slowly it comes to him that he was wrong about Jim and Teal Eye, for he notices that one of his brother’s children has a tinge of red hair. His mother says that there is red hair in the family. When a neighbor girl insists that he marry her because he made love to her, Boone starts back to the West. He longs both for freedom and for Teal Eye.

In Missouri, he visits Summers, who now has a wife and a farm. Over their whiskey, Boone reveals to Summers that he killed Jim. He knows now that he made a mistake. Everything is spoiled for him—Teal Eye and all the West. The day of the mountain man is nearly over; farmers are going to Oregon. Without saying good-bye, he stumbles out into the night. Summers can see him weaving along the road for a short distance. Then the darkness swallows him, and he is gone.

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