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dawn of the nineteenth century there were approximately sixty million buffalo roaming the North American great pains; but by the end of the century, there were less than one thousand. This empirical fact, perhaps more than any other, grants a certain amount of significance to the lives of the characters portrayed in A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky, because they all find themselves straddling these two powerful flows of history and they perceive it in different ways. Just as the buffalo are dying, so too is the American west -- the ways of the trappers, Indians, and social miscreants are continually being incurred upon by civilization. Summers has the perspective of an old trapper; and for him, to comprehend the American west, he must look to the past. Boone, on the other hand, finds himself in the midst of Indians and woodsmen only because of his asocial and self-centered nature. To Boone, the wilderness is limitless, so he fails to recognize that the depletion of the beaver population or the changing lives of the trappers are permanent alterations. Teal Eye, however, is more linked to the west than the other two characters, who -- although they appreciate it -- stand in opposition to it. She effectively grew out of the wilderness, and thus, her perspective of it lacks Summers' regret or foreboding, but she maintains some of the Boone's simplicity regarding it. Teal Eye's unique placement, by Guthrie, between the apparent shrewish nature of civilized women and the whoring of other squaws makes her characterization almost identical to the notion of the virgin frontier. Overall, Guthrie's characters' particular perspectives upon the American west are noteworthy because of their position within history and the competing forces that eventually destroy the sort of freedom they idealize.
Boone Caudill is, essentially, a social outcaste. Accordingly, his account of the history of the west would necessarily be seen through the lens of one rejecting civilization. It is not truly upon philosophical or rational grounds that Boone rejects city life, but out of his own selfishness. His attempt to kill his father with a stick of firewood in the opening of the novel firmly establishes his readiness for violence -- if it can achieve his immediate desires -- and his detachment from all conventional forms of community (Guthrie, 3-6). To Boone, however, it is not his selfish nature that forces him to become a fugitive; instead, he understands the community as having closed in around him -- a man who acted as any other man would have. Guthrie writes, "Boone figured he hadn't done anything that a true man wasn't bound to do. A man couldn't look himself in the face if he let people make little of him." (Guthrie, 8). This point-of-view is married to Boone's character, and therefore, could not be separated from any account he attempted to make of the world around him.
The history of the west, through Boone's eyes, can only be associated with what he has experienced first hand, his specific wants and desires; and these aspects of the frontier, to him, seem timeless: "it was as if time ran into itself and flowed over . . . so that yesterday and today were the same." (Guthrie, 258). This is a reflection of the world as Boone perceives it when he is well fed, well supplied, and well situated with his wife. As an individual man, he sees himself as the master of his own destiny through his skill at tapping into the boundless natural world. It is important that even though he experiences the indications that the timeless world he loves is coming to an end, he does not recognize it.
Guthrie writes, "One beaver from six settings. A poor lift, but a man couldn't expect better, not while he traveled with a parcel of other folks and trapped waters that trappers before him had worn paths along." (Guthrie, 260). This is a significant passage because it identifies the problem, mentions its supposed cause, and implies a solution. In Boone's mind the lack of beaver is connected to, partially, his own actions: he is traveling with others. This reflects his aversion from communities in general; the passage suggests that if Boone were alone -- if he were a completely free woodsman -- then the wilderness would hold everything he would ever need. Additionally, the mention of the worn paths of other trappers implies that Boone should still be able to locate fresh waters and lands, unfettered by white settlers; this is not necessarily the case from a more objective point-of-view. So, although Boone experiences the problems facing the west, he attributes them -- in accordance with his characterization -- to himself and his own actions, rather than the forces of history.
Boone's assessment of western history would be peppered with this timeless imagery: the rivers would be pure, the beaver and buffalo abundant, and the Indians constant in their lifestyles. Naturally, the societal perspective of history would be abandoned and the expanding United States would be seen as the spreading of the crowded, smoky, and smelly streets of towns like Louisville. Yet, to Boone, this expansion would be limited by the wilderness itself, just as the larger cities are reduced into mere clusters of log huts as civilization attempts to reach deeper into the west. Boone feels this boundary upon the timeless wilderness: "By listening close Boone could hear the voices in other lodges. . . . Above them he could still hear the sounds out in the grass behind, coming through the clay of the lodge." (Guthrie, 128). The sounds in the grass -- though much quieter from an objective point-of-view -- from Boone's perspective, rise above the human noises in the lodges: they remain insignificant with reference to the powers of individual freedom and plenty that his west possesses.
Summers, on the other hand, holds a far more realistic conception of both the west and history in general. Time does not stand still for him, even when he is well fed, supplied, and content. Additionally, he is not limited, as Boone is, by his own experiences; he is capable of abstract thought and can make generalizations about the west that Boone commonly interprets individualistically. Summers' history of the west would focus upon the contrasts between the days of plenty and his present circumstances: "He felt himself wrench inside, wanting to be loose again and free. . . . [But] he was too old now . . . And the old days were lost anyhow." (Guthrie, 384). Unlike Boone, Summers has a conception of himself that is independent of his immediate desires. He experiences similar drives for the freedom of the woodsman, but he understands that the west is not boundless -- such thinking led to its destruction. Summers is a realist where Boone is an optimist.
Ultimately Summers puts forward his final understanding of the American west and the trappers' way of life: "We went to get away and enj'y ourselves free and easy, but folks was bound to foller. . . . It's like we heired money and had to spend it, and now it's nigh gone." (Guthrie, 385). Summers sees the selfish nature of the woodsmen's life, so his history would be forced to illustrate the destructive character of those who took what they could from the land because they could. Guthrie's central theme in The Big Sky is that people tend to destroy what they love; the woodsmen loved their freedom, the land, and its goods until they were gone. In the process of living their lives to the fullest, they destroyed themselves. In this light, Summers is perhaps the novel's most coherent character: he knows that the history of the west is a sad tale. His history would portray the loss of the land of plenty not as a consequence of the expansion of a corrupt society, but as the consequence of too many people seeking individual freedom.
Teal Eye most significant quality is her link to the unknown past: she is an American Indian. This makes Boone's choice of her for a wife extremely revealing; he is attempting to tap into his conception of the infinite west by choosing a woman whose lineage is directly tied to a vast, but unwritten history of America. Guthrie writes, "Teal Eye suited him all right. . . . Teal Eye never whined or scolded or tried to make a man something else than what he was by nature, but just took him and did her work and was happy." (Guthrie, 255). Yet, Teal Eye took Boone because he was willing to undergo the rituals and customs of her people in order to marry her. This demonstrates both her adherence to cultural duty and the history that backed her actions. Again, where the morals by which she conducts her life originated remain, necessarily, obscure. But, her devotion to the unwritten past remains consistent.
Teal Eye's history would lack the sense of irony that would…[continue]
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