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Tom Chaney No. 266 review: A.B. Guthrie

Of Writers and Their Books No. 266, 22 August 2010. On to Oregon. A review of the books of Kentucky author A.B. Guthrie

The next earlier Tom Chaney essay, 1924 trial in Munfordville, KY for Bank Robbery in Canmer, Hart Co., KY

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

On To Oregon

I find myself going back to books which have given me pleasure in the past.

It's something like sitting with old friends who tell me stories I have heard before. We get together and start to remind ourselves of characters whom we have known and whose presence has always brought us delight.

Directly one of us will think of a new angle, a new fix that an old friend has got himself tied up in, and off we go - stopping only when the coal oil goes completely out of the lamp or the jug gurgles at the last drop.

The story telling sessions in Horse Cave a few days back put me in mind of well worn tales which have a deep luster come of much repeating. We don't always demand a new cantata. The old songs still stir us.

So with books.

My eye fell on The Way West by A. B. Guthrie some days ago, and I have been relishing it for a week or more.

You will recall that Guthrie was born in Ohio early in the last century, moved with his family to Oregon when but a lad, then returned to Lexington a very green reporter in 1926. There he matured as a writer for twenty years with the Lexington Leader

In 1947 he published The Big Sky.That novel is largely the tale of Boone Caudill in the 1830's -- a young Kentuckian, son of an abusive father, who cold cocks his father with a piece of stove wood, takes the father's rifle, and heads west finally joining up with Jim Deakins, Dick Summers, and the Blackfoot maiden Teal Eye.

Boone becomes a trapper moving further from civilization. Dick Summers returns to Missouri to farm.

Boone and Jim Deakins find Teal Eye and live among the Blackfeet. Teal Eye bears a son born blind from the white man's smallpox. The boy also has Jim's red hair. Boone kills Jim, and, leaving Teal Eye, flees back home.

Returning west again he stops at Dick Summer's Missouri farm.

Confessing his sin, he states the recurring theme of the three books. "It's all sp'iled, I reckon, Dick. The whole caboodle."

In The Way West, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, Summers is some older when he agrees to guide an early party of settlers to Oregon.

The novel focuses mostly on one family in the train -- Lije and Rebecca Evans and their son Brownie. Early in the trip Lije replaces the organizer of the train, Tadlock, as leader.

Dick Summers muses as he leads out, "[T]hese were different from mountain men. These 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 was they wanted to be and to have."

The best reason for going, Summers thinks, is what he sees in Lije -- the gumption to kick the rails down on the fence and find something different. "It was a slim chance that people would find themselves better off once they had staked off land in Oregon."

I could spend pages describing the troubles that plagued the trip. Births, deaths, fights among themselves and with Native Americans -- intricate relationships.

Once Becka muses that she could happily settle in near a fort not halfway there "and be done with dirt and hard travel."

Lije remarks they "are coming along fine."" 'Yes,' she said. 'Fine.' Men were queer she thought. Even Lije was queer, taking such a real and simple pleasure in the work of his muscles and the roll of wheels . . . as if there wasn't any aim in life but to leave tracks, no time in it but for go. He didn't mind eating mush with blown sand in it."

And within another generation Boone's judgment has become true: It's all spoiled; the whole caboodle.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-08-22 07:22:52
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