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The Big Sky Paperback – January 9, 2002
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I said all that to say that "The Big Sky" really is about freedom, and really is about the West. It's about the true, wild, primitive west, before the plow, before roads, when there were still huge, intact Indian cultures in place with armies of horsemen and enormous herds of buffalo. So it's interesting to me that this genre is largely ignored, but I can see why - there are no set-piece plots just begging to be turned into movies - no "new sherriff in town" characters, because there are no sherriffs, and no towns other than a few trading posts. There is only the land and the sky and the interaction between a few incredibly brave white men and all those Indians.
If you don't already know, this is the story of Boone Caudill and his friend Jim Deakins, and several important side characters, but it's basically Boone's book. He's driven west by an aching need for wildness and freedom, and is pushed out by a brutal father. He makes his way west to St. Louis, along the way befriending Deakins, in hopes of meeting his uncle Zeb who had become a trapper years earlier. The rest of the tail is complex and interlaced, and not a simplistic good guy/bad guy plot at all, and what stands out is the crystalline depictions of the people and places and over all, arching like the sky itself, is freedom. Freedom to roam at will in that beautiful country is the main character of this book. Freedom is the religion, the politics, the philosophy, the recreation - it is everything that is important. The trappers are there to trap - sure - but they're really there because this is a wild, free place, where they will not be hampered by rules, where they can be natural men. It sounds over romanticized, but it really did happen that way, and from what we know, that is truly the way they felt about their lives and why they endured the agonies of that existence. Despairing that new settlers are moving west and building farms and towns, Boone cries "Lord, Jim - remember the Tetons standing proud in the sun, and the Seeds Ke Dee...don't you remember her when she was all purty and new and not a man track on her save Injun?" This novel makes you sob like few I've ever read. The sense of loss, the closing of an age of the world, hangs in the air like mist. They are going to be the last to see something so precious, and for their pains they get to watch their world wither and die under the press of settlement.
The movie "The Mountain Men" with Charleton Heston comes close to capturing a tiny bit of this book, and you can tell it's inspired in many ways by it, but no other book or film has ever come close to truly painting the world of the mountain man as has this novel. "Jeremiah Johnson" is another good film, with many fine touches. But if you want to follow the water up stream, back to its source in the mountains, then please, before you grow too old, read "The Big Sky" and open your heart to that time and place and the wild, brazen beauty of the America few Americans know ever existed.