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Review: The Way West, by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
Mariner/Houghton, 2002 [1949]. 340 pp. $14

A wagon train sets forth from Missouri in 1845, bound for Oregon. That may not sound like much of a premise. Nor does Guthrie stud his plot with grand, sweeping action. Nevertheless, this classic Western (from the author who wrote the screenplay for Shane, also a classic) provides as gripping a tale as I’ve read in a while, simply by recounting the trials involved in traversing more than a thousand miles of unmarked wilderness, day after day, month after month.

Alfred Jacob Miller's painting, from memory, of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, before 1840 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Alfred Jacob Miller’s painting, from memory, of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, before 1840 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

His secret? The desires, dreams, and perceptions of his characters–their inner lives–spill from every page. I feel that I know these people intimately, so I care what happens to them, even if I don’t like them (and some are decidedly unlikable). At times, they act like a loose-knit family, with all its kindnesses, quirks, and dysfunctions. But their disputes, alliances, interests, and consideration for one another (or lack of it, sometimes), however minor or mundane they are, take on outsize proportions.

For instance, when one of the needier, less accomplished travelers pleads openly for help, his request sounds “womanish” to one man, prompting that listener to grapple with what he’d never reflected on before, notions of how men and women differ. It’s a recurrent theme in the novel, especially evident in how the supposedly weaker sex displays tremendous strength and fortitude. But the character’s reflections imply another, larger purpose. The people making this journey aren’t just finding a new home; they’re finding out who they are.

Guthrie handles this brilliantly. He portrays his characters from several angles–how they feel about themselves, how they want others to see them, how they behave in groups, and when by themselves. The politics, in the broadest sense, start from the first pages, when the self-appointed leader of the expedition tries to recruit men he thinks will be useful to him. It’s a vivid, involving scene, because you can already sense which way the power lines run; what each man hopes to accomplish; what seduces them; and who’s trying to seduce. Even the man serving them drinks has a viewpoint, subtly suggested–he’s worried that good customers will be leaving town. And the only thing that “happens” is that these men begin to think of pulling up stakes and heading west. I admire this kind of writing, which can make high drama out of a glass or three of whiskey.

Among my favorite characters is Dick Summers, a laconic mountain man hired to guide the wagon train. He always knows more than he says, which is why the more perceptive people seek him out, and he never rushes to condemn anybody. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a dead shot, a gifted tracker, understands and partly admires Native American ways, and knows the trail. However, as in many other novels about the American West, Dick also represents the man who’ll have no place in the society that the people he’s guiding will create. What sets him apart most is an outlook:

These [men] couldn’t enjoy life as it rolled by; they wanted to make something out of it, as if they could take it and shape it to their way if only they worked and figured hard enough. They didn’t talk beaver and whisky and squaws or let themselves soak in the weather; they talked crops and water power and business and maybe didn’t even notice the sun or the pale green of new leaves except as something along the way to whatever it is they wanted to be and to have. Later they might look back, some of them might, and wonder how it happened that things had slid by them.

At times, Dick Summers seems a little too good to be true–always on the right side, ever patient, never selfish, understands himself clearly. Yet the above passage strikes me as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. Reading The Way West, I have to wonder whether dreams are useless, if you miss what happens on your way to realizing them.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.