Published in 1947, The Big Sky seems to have more in common with the modern neo-Western than with the romanticized vision of the West in the more recognizable genre standards of Louis L'amour. As one might suspect given the title, the romantic elements of the novel do focus primarily on the descriptions of the environments, as well as the main characetrs' interactions with the changing scenery. For example, as the trio travel up the Missouri River while working on a French keelboat, the Mandan, Guthrie uses the smaller moments to bring the West to life:
...Summers lying above the big bend with a handkerchief flying from a stick and an antelope dancing and circling and coming closer, out of curiousness, until Summers' bullet knocked it over; sandbanks and sandbanks, and prairies and prairies and always the strange hills and the big sky. (126)During this leg of their journey, the men encounter of a variety of different "adversaries," ranging from Indians, competing "businessmen," and their own primal urges. Much of the narrative is driven by the experiences of Boone Caudill, who serves the role of de facto protagonist despite some of his actions being less-than-savory. It is in the author's descriptions of the smaller challenges of frontier life faced by young Boone that my own interest as a reader was piqued. The character background and nuanced experiences of the group Guthrie supplies is unique on many fronts.
One example would be in its depiction of the potential pitfalls of poor hygiene in the Old West. As realistic a depiction as McMurtry's novels appeared to be, they never addressed the real likelihood of venereal disease. (Even as I type this, discussing this topic in the context of a Western novel does seem odd, but when one thinks about the lack of personal hygiene, it makes sense.) In fact, the contracting of the clap is described as a badge of honor without which one is unable to "shine as a man" (87). The dialogue between the three main characters as the two more experienced travelers (Dick and Jim) as they diagnose Boone's condition is surprisingly frank especially given the publication date of the novel. These sorts of asides are not, however, gratuitous or shocking, but rather serve to bring to life some of the very real issues faced both on the pathway West as well as in the lives of the mountain man.
One of the more challenging, and presumably realistic, elements of the novel is the diction employed in crafting the dialogue of characters from a variety of cultural and educational backgrounds. This is most noticeable in both the dialogue used to characterize the uneducated Boone and the French captain of the Mandan, Jourdonnais. With a historical starting point of the 1830's, much of the general vernacular of Boone and others is full of dropped "g's," for example in "runnin'", and unique regional dialectic flourishes such as "figger" for "figure." Jourdonnais and his fellow Frenchman (who are painted in stark contrast to the rough and tumble Americans), speak with patois that one would suspect is fairly accurate. Though dense in some parts, especially until I became familiar with the conversational ebb and flow, this sophisticated dialogue also add an additional level of differentiation between superficially similar characters.
While incredibly interesting, and somewhat educational, The Big Sky was not an entirely enjoyable read in the way that say, Lonesome Dove is, in large part because I had difficulty connecting with any of the main characters beyond the thrill of being a bystander. As a reader, I carried on through the book, appreciating the detail and quality of well-turned phrases and occasional action set-pieces, but was not drawn in as much as I had hoped. While I would recommend it to those who have an interest in early American history and are seeking a fairly unromanticized depiction of life on the trail West, this does not seem to me an ideal "beach book." Any weakness in the readability of a classic book though more likely reflects a lack of depth or understanding on the part of this reader (me), it is after-all one of the 10 best Westerns, and I'm just a goofy blogger doing some summer reading!
The Mariner Books edition of The Big Sky that I read opened with a fascinating foreword by Wallace Stegner. I had only read Stegner in quotes and excerpts relevant to Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, and my reading of this essay along with The Big Sky did add an additional level of heft to the loss of space theme that Guthrie was imbuing his work with. Again, while very interesting to me, and perhaps those who appreciate the literary analysis of American Westerns, likely not all that entertaining for the general reader.