The Way West ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
For decades now, we’ve been able to get on a jet plane and fly from the middle of the country, Missouri, all the way to Oregon in the Pacific Northwest in a few hours. In the 1850s it wasn’t so easy. Back then, people traveled the distance in the most difficult way imaginable: in wagon trains of ten, fifteen or twenty wagons, usually one family to a wagon. The trains moved about ten to twelve miles a day, so the trip lasted for months. And the way was fraught with dangers and hardships, including canyons, wild rivers, mountains, vast distances without rest or water; extremes of heat, wind and cold; illness, disease and death; hostile, sometimes murderous, Indians; wild animals including buffalo and rattlesnakes (not to mention mosquitoes and other insects); the inevitable clash of personalities and all the jealousies and ugliness engendered by a group of human beings thrown together. The train comprises a microcosm, a world in miniature, the bad along with the good.
The Way West by A.B. Guthrie Jr. is the simple story of one such wagon train that sets out from Independence, Missouri, with its sites set on the storied land of Oregon. These wagon trains always had a “pilot,” an experienced man who usually knew what most of the travelers didn’t: the way was hard and dangerous and some of them weren’t going to make it. Dick Summers is the pilot in The Way West. He’s forty-nine years old, a widower, a mountain man who has traveled over the terrain before and knows what to expect. He always knows the best route to take, how to deal with the indigents, how to ford raging rivers, etc. Without him, the travelers would be doomed. Think of John Wayne.
Lije Evans was a farmer back in Missouri. Now he’s the captain of the wagon train. He tells the train when to stop and when to get a-goin’ again, but he relies heavily on Dick Summers for practical advice in all matters. Lije is traveling with his wife, Rebecca, his son, Brownie, and his faithful old dog, Rock. Lije is the central character in the novel. We see things through his eyes. His must deal with the usual collection of misfits and egocentric individuals who think they know more than he does. Thrown into the mix is a teenage temptress named Mercy McBee who—innocently enough, it seems—falls under the spell of a handsome married man, Curtis Mack, and ends up pregnant by him. Uh-oh! The leaders already said at the outset that they wouldn’t countenance adultery and fornication and would horsewhip any offenders.
The Way West is a solid, readable classic that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. It’s an American story about westward expansion and the search for a better life in the nineteenth century when the country just wasn’t big enough and people wanted to make it bigger. Now people are much softer. When I’m with a group of people and somebody is complaining about being cold in a stifling room or they want to have all the windows closed in an airless room because they’re afraid of bees getting in, I say, sarcastically, “That’s the pioneering spirit that made this country what it is today.” People today are whiny-assed crybabies who would never be able to suffer the hardship and discomfort of traveling across a continent in a covered wagon to live in an unknown place they’ve never seen before. Does everybody have their cell phones, and how on earth are we going to charge them? How about anti-anxiety pills? Does everybody have theirs? You’re certainly going to need them when an Indian tries to scalp you.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp