Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The pioneers sought freedom, but they also sought material betterment. In These Thousand Hills, Guthrie dramatizes the conflict between the two goals. Those men who cherish freedom, like the mountain men of Guthrie’s earlier books, become the wandering cowhands of These Thousand Hills, free to indulge in “vice” and to avoid commitment. Those men, like Lat, who choose material betterment find themselves also choosing respectability, the church, the school, the symbolic picket fence. In Montana, with its big sky and distant mountains, choosing to limit oneself physically and intellectually seems an even greater loss than where nature is itself less awesome. Perhaps, Guthrie suggests, civilization will always win over the primitive. This is the theme of history.

The second theme in These Thousand Hills also involves the dream of material betterment. In The Way West, Lat’s grandparents and parents had made the overland journey to Oregon in a wagon train. In These Thousand Hills, the reader learns that their dreams of prosperity were never realized. His parents’ poverty is one motivation of Lat Evans and yet is probably one reason that as he rises, he rarely communicates with them except to make it clear that he is succeeding by sending them money. Thus, the deferred dream of the settlers in Oregon becomes the dream of a rancher in Montana. Unlike his grandfather, however, still confusedly warning him to beware of the British, still thinking of building the nation, Lat has a purely personal dream, and thus a somewhat diminished one.

However selfish Lat’s motivation, he becomes worthy of his mountains when he must choose between his dream and that which he knows is the right action. Despite the dwindling of horizons as Guthrie’s multivolume chronicle of the West continues, there can be the triumph of a moral action which refuses to be denied by the threat of gossip or hemmed in by the picket fences of narrow respectability.