Analysis

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Last Reviewed on September 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie Jr. is a coming-of-age story of a young man, Boone Caudill, who leaves his family and his Kentucky home in 1830 for the unknown adventures of the West. The novel follows Boone's journey as he makes friends, becomes employed by a shipping company, heads further into the West, falls in love, betrays his friend and love, returns to Kentucky, and ultimately leaves for the West once more.

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Early on in his journey, Boone befriends Jim Deakins, and the two travel together—supporting one another, working together, and causing mischief. Their friendship represents the in-between stage of adolescence in which the innocence and playfulness of childhood still exists but is met with the seriousness and mystery of adulthood.

As the young men make their way towards Blackfoot territory, they are attacked several times by indigenous tribes, who are protecting their lands from white colonizers. The description of the attacks in the novel seem to be set up to be sympathetic toward the white man and his colonial actions. However, if one uses critical thinking and empathy, it is easy to understand that the tribes are attempting to stop an invading force from stealing their homelands and bringing sickness and death with them as they force their way further into native lands. The novel is certainly reflective of the Manifest Destiny narrative that attempted to justify white colonialism.

Upon meeting Teal Eye, a Blackfoot woman sailing with Boone and Jim on the river boat back toward Blackfoot country, Boone realizes that he desires her. Several years later, Boone, now an adult, is determined to meet Teal Eye again in her home territory with the hopes of marrying her. Boone speaks of this intent to marry Teal Eye as a challenge to be won. His behaviors are reflective of misogynistic colonial attitudes towards women, particularly toward native women, whom white men often viewed as prizes or trophies to be won. Boone further reveals his misogyny after his son is born with red hair, the color of Jim's hair, and he suspects Jim and Teal Eye of having an affair. Rather than speaking to either of them about his concerns, Boone chooses to try to catch the two in an affair. When he sees Jim trying to console Teal Eye on the blindness of her newborn child, Boone takes this comfort as proof of an affair and, without warning, shoots and kills Jim. Only later, after leaving Teal Eye and traveling back to Kentucky, does Boone discover that red hair is common in children in his family and that Teal Eye and Jim were not having an affair. Boone realizes his enormous mistakes far too late, and his life takes a serious downward turn as he plunges into a deep depression.

As farmers begin to move out West in larger and larger numbers, Boone becomes less enamored with the wild adventures of the west, and the novel ends with him feeling lost and confused. The Big Sky emphasizes the fleeting nature of youth, the ways in which misogyny destroys friendships and romances, and the lack of true meaning in a life rooted in white colonialism.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

*Missouri River

*Missouri River. Great river of the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains that provides the first stage of Caudill’s route to the West. It also serves as a test during his passage from youth to adulthood. As a crew member on a small trading vessel, a keelboat, he experiences the daily toil of rowing, poling, and dragging the boat against the unpredictable and often dangerous currents of the river. He also witnesses the unequal relationship between the European American traders and the Native Americans whose lands and ways of life are threatened by the westward expansion of white commerce and settlement. The constant potential for violence between whites and Indians contrasts with Caudill’s growing love for the pristine landscape of river, bluff, hill, and prairie. The sky and the earth soon seem to him “the ceiling and floor of a home that was all his own.”

Although the Missouri is a tributary of the Mississippi River, it is longer than the Mississippi. It also passes through more varied terrain and has more picturesque tributaries—most notably the Yellowstone River. However, the literary importance of the river is the fact that it has its source in the Rocky Mountains, whose majestic peaks and serene valleys are Caudill’s unspoken goal. The river is a road to both worldly and spiritual fulfillment, though Boone himself is unable to put his yearnings into words for himself or his companions.

*Teton River

*Teton River (TEE-tawn). Tributary of the Missouri River that rises in northwest-central Montana. The captain of Caudill’s keelboat sets out from St. Louis intending to reach the most northern tributaries of the Missouri, where he could trade with the feared Blackfeet Indians, who are known for their fighting skills and courage. He stakes his success upon bringing from St. Louis a young Blackfoot girl, Teal Eye, who was separated from her people during a raid by the Crow people. Teal Eye steals away from the boat not long before it is ambushed and destroyed, but several years later Caudill realizes that he loves her and sets out to find her in the broad valley of the Teton River, near present-day Choteau, Montana.

*Montana

*Montana. Region (later a territory and state) in which much of the novel is set. If the great Missouri is the heart of the adventure in The Big Sky, the Teton—a small but picturesque river—is the object of the author’s deepest affection. A. B. Guthrie grew up in Choteau and returned there in later years. His novel celebrates not only the Choteau area but also the entire state of Montana, whose nickname is Big Sky Country. Caudill voices the author’s own sentiment that Montana’s Teton Valley is a place in which a man could spend his entire life and “never wish for better.” Guthrie’s writings return again and again to Montana. His writing’s passion for the region is matched only by the paintings of the celebrated Montana artist Charles M. Russell.

*Kentucky

*Kentucky. State that is Caudill’s childhood home until he leaves as an adolescent. As a man of middle years he returns there to visit his family and finds Kentucky physically and psychologically oppressive. An element of his unease lies in his dislike of the very notion of settled homes, places that are closed in and “full of little stinks.” For Caudill, houses smother men who have the “feeling of the mountains” in them.

*St. Louis

*St. Louis. Missouri’s largest city, just below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which for some years before 1830 was a point of departure for both overland western journeys and those by river. The historic Lewis and Clark expedition started from near St. Louis in 1804 and returned there in 1806, after following the course of the Missouri River for much of its journey, which extended to the Pacific Coast. The journals of the expedition have served as a literary background for all subsequent accounts of the Missouri River’s hinterland, and the expedition itself is often characterized as an early expression of the national doctrine of manifest destiny—the inevitability of American expansion into the West—a sentiment repeatedly expressed by the characters in The Big Sky.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270

Astro, Richard. “The Big Sky and the Limits of Wilderness Fiction.” Western American Literature (Summer, 1974): 105-114. Reasons that The Big Sky fails as a nostalgic historical novel depicting a tragic hero falling. Boone Caudill, a one-dimensional character who is ignorant of the effect of time on historical details, cannot learn from friends or enemies, cannot gain wisdom, and symbolizes bankrupt primitivism.

Cracroft, Richard H. “The Big Sky: A. B. Guthrie’s Use of Historical Sources.” Western American Literature 6 (Fall, 1971): 163-176. Says Guthrie augments authenticity by writing into The Big Sky language, scenes, and incidents from works by Henry Marie Brackenridge, John Bradbury, Washington Irving, and George Frederick Ruxton, among others.

Ford, Thomas W. A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Critical biography, chapter 3 of which treats The Big Sky in terms of its plot, Guthrie’s purposes (to present facts about mountain men; to convey his love of the West), the novel’s landscape pictures, its themes, (destructive violence and encroachment of civilization), its Calvinistic meditations, and its unadorned handling of time and space.

Gale, Robert L. “Guthrie’s The Big Sky.” Explicator 38 (Summer, 1980): 7-8. Sees Jim Deakins’ offer of his own flesh to feed Boone Caudill and the goat’s gift of blood to Boone as forming a Holy Eucharist which Boone ignorantly spurns, resulting in unsociablity and natural desolation.

Stewart, Donald C. “The Functions of Bird and Sky Imagery in Guthrie’s The Big Sky.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 19, no. 2 (1977): 53-61. Presents interlocking bird and sky similes and metaphors as transforming a well-organized novel into coherent, imaginative art. Images individualize characters and actions, underline moods, and elucidate themes.

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