Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie: Book Report

March 10, 1999 (History 358--History of the American West)

Boone Caudill embarks on a journey full of excitement and adventure after he flees from the East.  Boone encounters many people in the West, and sees many places.  Boone fights Indians, kills Indians, lives with Indians, and even marries an Indian.  Yet how realistic is the portrayal of Indians in The Big Sky?  Is the author, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., a racist or does he admire Indian culture?

According to the copyright date, The Big Sky was written in 1947.  It was before the Civil Rights movement, before Indian Power, before Dances with Wolves.  Most popular movies and television shows of the time portrayed Native Americans as the bad guy, the savage against whom the White embodiment of goodness must struggle against.  While not all popular media of the time shared this view, it would not be a surprise to find racism in something from this era.  So how does The Big Sky come out?

Some of the characters with in The Big Sky are unquestionably racists.  Streak is the best example of this, and he voices his view of the Indians very succinctly on page 179: "Damn the goddam Injuns!"  Streak attempts to take his frustrations from past Indians out on Poordevil, and when Boone objects to this form of scapegoating, Streak responds, "One's like t'other as much as two peas" (180).  Another example of a character hostile to Indians is Russell, who, when explaining his policy towards Indians, states, "The only way to settle disputes with Indians is with a rifle.  It writes a treaty they won't forget" (190).

However, Guthrie obviously does not approve of these characters.  Streak is killed by Boone Caudill, the hero of the novel, when Streak threatens Poordevil.  Russell's views are contrasted with the more tolerant attitude of Dick Summers.  In fact it would seem that Guthrie uses the attitudes of these two characters to combat anti-Indian attitudes, which may still have been widespread at the time in which he was writing.

However, even Boone Caudill, the hero of the novel, harbors some attitudes about the Indians that are far from positive.   Boone's own thoughts about Indians are outlined on page 280.  "It was just that a man couldn't tell about Indians, no matter if he lived with them.  They were prideful and easy to please or to anger and quick to act in ways a man might not look for and for reasons he might not think of."  Boone also seems to put a low value on Indian life, for he kills them without any apparent remorse when he feels he has to.  It should be pointed out, though, that Boone also kills Streak with no remorse, and shows surprisingly little regret when he kills his best friend, Jim Deakins.  Furthermore, Boone is obviously not a hero without flaws, and certainly not all of his views are reflective of Guthrie's.

More telling of Guthrie's attitude would be the way he portrays the Indians themselves.  Guthrie often portrays the Indians as violent.  The most telling example of this is the massacre of Jourdonnais and the crew of the Mandan, by the Blackfeet.  The Blackfeet attack with no apparent provocation.  Jourdonnais, who sought to win their friendship by returning Teal Eye, the daughter of one of their chiefs, is killed for his efforts. Guthrie describes Boone's revulsion at the inhumanity of the Indians.  "He crawled away with a coldness on him, inside and out, thinking of people who beat a man's brains out or cut off his pizzle after he was dead" (155-156).  The Indians are later responsible for killing Zenon, and wounding Jim.

However, if the Indians are at times portrayed in a negative light, the White people are often shown as being worse.  Russell and Streak are both example of White inhumanity towards Indians.  Boone's uncaring attitude towards his blind child is contrasted with Teal Eye's love for the child.  There are plenty of unlikable characters in The Big Sky, most of them are White, some of them just happen to be Indian.

More condemning of Guthrie is the character of Poordevil.  Poordevil is shown to be a likable character, friend to Boone, Jim, and Summers.  However, Poordevil appears to fulfill the role of the lovable idiot.  It was popular at the time to make minorities into child like characters.  Blacks were often portrayed as smiling, submissive, buffoons, and Asians were commonly portrayed as clowns.  Is Poordevil simply the Indian version of this minority stereotype as popular in Hollywood during  this period?

Poordevil is a unique case.  Of all the other Indians presented, he alone is portrayed in this manner.  Because Poordevil is obviously mentally impaired, would it be overly politically correct  to accuse Guthrie of racism because of this?  If Guthrie had created a White character who was mentally impaired, no one would have thought twice about it.

However, the question merits consideration because Poordevil is the most prominent Indian character in the book.  (Teal Eye is a flat character and mostly regulated to the background, despite the importance she places to the plot.)  Why did Guthrie choose to make his most prominent Indian character, the only Indian who teams up with Boone, Jim and Summers, not quite right in the head?  Furthermore, Poordevil's clownish appearance would not be explained by the fact that he was mentally impaired.  "His ugly, bone face creased into a sudden smile that showed he had two teeth missing in front.  He had a crooked nose that came down almost to his lips and seemed about to poke into the hole that the teeth had left" (164).  Poordevil is always smiling, no matter what happens.  Even mentally retarded people are not normally happy all the time, but Poordevil is always foolishly joyful.  "Poordevil's face was one big smile.  Everything was a joke to that fool Indian" (225).  Whether Guthrie consciously created Poordevil to fulfill that stereotype of the buffoon minority character or not, Poordevil fits the character perfectly.

Despite that negative note, it's important to emphasize that Guthrie does not appear to be an overt racist in the classic pro-segregationist meaning of the word.  He does not appear to be against inter-racial marriages--evidence of this being that he includes one in the book.  Granted the marriage ends in failure, and results in the death of Jim Deakins, and granted Boone  does not exactly have the best in-law relations: "He would kill himself a chief if Jim was dead.  He would stand Red Horn's scalp on a stick by his lodge no matter if Red Horn was kin to him by woman" (282).

However, despite unhappy ending the marriage comes to, Guthrie does not seem to be against the concept of inter-racial marriage itself. Boone's foolishness ends the marriage, not Teal Eye.  In fact, Teal Eye is presented as the ideal woman before Boone ruins everything. This is contrasted with the marriage of both Dan Caudill and Dick Summers, both of whom married White women.  Dan's wife, Cora, is a judgmental fundamentalist.  Summers' wife nagged him in front of Boone.  Boone compares marriage to a White woman with marriage to an Indian--marriage to an Indian being the favorable alternative.

It wasn't right for a woman to plague a man, leave along an honest-to-God man like Dick.  She ought to leave him be, like a Blackfoot woman would know to do, like Teal Eye would know, looking at him with her big eyes, not saying anything, letting him have his way, not thinking he was right or wrong or drunk or sober but just that he was himself (360).
In fact earlier in the book, Jim and Boone were surprised that Summers would marry a white woman.  When asked about Summers, Jim exclaims, "Married!  Damn if he ain't!  And to a white woman!" (253).  On the previous page, Jim had expressed his dislike of white women: "The women are weak and lazy.  They do not dress skins and cut wood and pitch and break camp  The are not like Teal Eye" (252).

Obviously, Guthrie clings to ideals about what women should be like that would be considered sexist today, but the point is clear: White men are happier with Indian women.  Although one cannot help but wonder how Guthrie would have felt about Indian men marrying White women.  After all, even in the most racist areas of the South it was always accepted for White men to have sex with Black women, but never the reversal of general roles.  However, since Guthrie does not make his opinion known on this one way or the other, it would be unfair to condemn him for what he did not write.

Finally, one last word in Guthrie's defense.  Guthrie shows the White settlers in his book as have little regard for the environment or respect for it.  Peabody is an excellent example of this. "You appear to think" he says to Boone, that

because the Indians haven't made good use of this great western country, that nobody can. ... When country which might support so many actually supports so few, then, by thunder, the inhabitants have not made good use of the natural possibilities.  That failure surely is justification for invasion, peaceful, if possible, forcible, if necessary, by people who can and will capitalize on opportunity (264).
Peabody learns to respect nature when he and Boone are stranded in it later.

The attitude of Guthrie's Indians may not perfectly match the attitude of today's environmentalists, as evidenced by Red Horn's comment: "The Buffalo will last while the Indian lasts.  Then we do not care" (249).  However, Guthrie makes clear that it is the White advance which is destroying the West Boone so loves, and replacing nature's beauty with cities.  Jim describes the problem of White civilization when Boone first meets him; "I don't hanker to live in no anthill."

Is Guthrie a racist, or an advocate for the Indians?  Do the comments made by Boone and others about the Indians reflect Guthrie's views, or is Guthrie simply trying to show the attitudes of his time?  Guthrie is not an extreme racist--in fact, he attacks these attitudes in his book.  However, the character of Poordevil alone, even if all the other transgressions can be explained away, indicate that he was at least unconsciously racist in some respects.  Given the decade in which Guthrie was writing in, the way Indians were popularly portrayed, it is understandable that this would show in his writing.   The Big Sky remains an informative piece of literature despite these flaws.

Professor's Comments: This is a subtle assessment of a knotty problem.  I commend you for taking on such a difficult assignment and handling it in so nuanced a way!  What is the relevance of this issue to the larger story of the West?  See if, in your conclusion, you can place the book--either as a narrative about the past or as a work of fiction written in the last 40s--in a larger context.
Grade: A

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