The Big Sky

by A. B. Guthrie Jr.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The character of Boone Caudill epitomizes the individualist, hypermasculine adventurer who sets out for the unknown territories of the West. Resolutely insisting on the correctness of his actions and motivations, he refuses to acknowledge the possible validity of others’ points of view. To the seventeen-year-old Boone, a man must always defend himself physically. Early in the novel, his exodus from his home occurs after he lashes out at others. In putting this philosophy into practice by attacking both Mose Napier, another young man who had “deviled” him and his own father, Boone uses this macho code to rationalize his violence.

He reckoned he’d broke Mose Napier’s face all right. . . . It was all right, too. It was what Mose had asked for. Mose was older than him, by two year anyway, and a slight too big for his breeches. A body could take so much and then, if he was a man, he didn’t take any more, leastwise as long as he could hit back.

As Boone makes his way westward, for part of the way he travels on a boat along the Missouri River. When he and another man, Summers, get out to hunt buffalo, he first experiences the vastness of the open country that he has been seeking. As they walk up a hill, he notices how different the terrain is from what he had left behind. He feels a strong pull on his heart, as he is both humbled, or “little,” but also thinks he is as big as a king.

[There] wasn’t a cloud in all the sky, not even a piece of one . . . and the air was still and waiting-like, as if it were worn out and resting up for a blow . . . From the top [of the hill] Boone could see forever and ever, nearly any way he looked. It was open country, bald and open, without an end. It spread away, flat now and then rolling, going on clear to the sky. A man wouldn’t think the whole world was so much. It made the heart come up. It made a man little and still big, like a king looking out.

The men with whom Boone is traveling, who have more experience living out West, have varied attitudes toward the Native American people they encounter. Summers, for example, has the opinion that Sioux are unreliable compared to other Native peoples. Boone’s attitudes, however, are strictly negative. Viewing all Native Americans as enemies, he harbors fantasies of killing them and taking their scalps. When he, Summers, and another man later meet up with a small band of Sioux on horseback, Boone looks the men over, thinking about how their hair and scalp might look like a trophy that he would keep. The encounter quickly turns violent, and Summers shoots and kills a Native man who charges at them. Boone is eager to engage them further.

The others [Indians], driven back a little by the shot, began to come in again. . . . One of them bobbed up and swung his rifle over. The ball sang past Boone. He had the rifle primed again, and the Indian on the speckled pony in his sights. “Kin I shoot one?” He didn’t wait. . . . His fingers bore on the trigger, like it had a mind of its own. The rifle jumped.

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