Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

These Thousand Hills was the third in a series of Western chronicles by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., following The Way West, which had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. Critically, it has been less well regarded than The Way West or Guthrie’s first major novel, The Big Sky (1947), but sympathetic readers have argued that the lack of force or lack of unity which they observe is the result of the subject, an increasingly more complicated society, rather than of any technical defect. As Guthrie’s chronicle moves into the twentieth century with the books that follow These Thousand Hills, the lack of color and of epic scope are even more evident.

Although the trappings of the Western novel are familiar to everyone—the saloon, the prostitutes, the Indians, the rustlers—Guthrie’s details are better researched than many another writer’s. He can re-create a river scene in spring or tell the reader how to save on strychnine in wolf-poisoning. What finally elevates him above many other writers of the Western historical novel, however, is his emphasis on the complex and difficult decisions which are forced upon his characters in a wilderness which is becoming civilized. In These Thousand Hills, the decisions are still being made in a society which has not lost its memory of the time when men dared the impossible, when the best of them stretched toward the big sky. Yet in this book midpoint in Guthrie’s Western series, the dream of freedom is already in retreat.