Places: The Big Sky

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1947

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1830-1843

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Missouri River

*Missouri Big Sky, TheRiver. Great river of the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains that provides the first stage of Caudill’s route to the West. It also serves as a test during his passage from youth to adulthood. As a crew member on a small trading vessel, a keelboat, he experiences the daily toil of rowing, poling, and dragging the boat against the unpredictable and often dangerous currents of the river. He also witnesses the unequal relationship between the European American traders and the Native Americans whose lands and ways of life are threatened by the westward expansion of white commerce and settlement. The constant potential for violence between whites and Indians contrasts with Caudill’s growing love for the pristine landscape of river, bluff, hill, and prairie. The sky and the earth soon seem to him “the ceiling and floor of a home that was all his own.”

Although the Missouri is a tributary of the Mississippi River, it is longer than the Mississippi. It also passes through more varied terrain and has more picturesque tributaries–most notably the Yellowstone River. However, the literary importance of the river is the fact that it has its source in the Rocky Mountains, whose majestic peaks and serene valleys are Caudill’s unspoken goal. The river is a road to both worldly and spiritual fulfillment, though Boone himself is unable to put his yearnings into words for himself or his companions.

*Teton River

*Teton River (TEE-tawn). Tributary of the Missouri River that rises in northwest-central Montana. The captain of Caudill’s keelboat sets out from St. Louis intending to reach the most northern tributaries of the Missouri, where he could trade with the feared Blackfeet Indians, who are known for their fighting skills and courage. He stakes his success upon bringing from St. Louis a young Blackfoot girl, Teal Eye, who was separated from her people during a raid by the Crow people. Teal Eye steals away from the boat not long before it is ambushed and destroyed, but several years later Caudill realizes that he loves her and sets out to find her in the broad valley of the Teton River, near present-day Choteau, Montana.


*Montana. Region (later a territory and state) in which much of the novel is set. If the great Missouri is the heart of the adventure in The Big Sky, the Teton–a small but picturesque river–is the object of the author’s deepest affection. A. B. Guthrie grew up in Choteau and returned there in later years. His novel celebrates not only the Choteau area but also the entire state of Montana, whose nickname is Big Sky Country. Caudill voices the author’s own sentiment that Montana’s Teton Valley is a place in which a man could spend his entire life and “never wish for better.” Guthrie’s writings return again and again to Montana. His writing’s passion for the region is matched only by the paintings of the celebrated Montana artist Charles M. Russell.


*Kentucky. State that is Caudill’s childhood home until he leaves as an adolescent. As a man of middle years he returns there to visit his family and finds Kentucky physically and psychologically oppressive. An element of his unease lies in his dislike of the very notion of settled homes, places that are closed in and “full of little stinks.” For Caudill, houses smother men who have the “feeling of the mountains” in them.

*St. Louis

*St. Louis. Missouri’s largest city, just below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which for some years before 1830 was a point of departure for both overland western journeys and those by river. The historic Lewis and Clark expedition started from near St. Louis in 1804 and returned there in 1806, after following the course of the Missouri River for much of its journey, which extended to the Pacific Coast. The journals of the expedition have served as a literary background for all subsequent accounts of the Missouri River’s hinterland, and the expedition itself is often characterized as an early expression of the national doctrine of manifest destiny–the inevitability of American expansion into the West–a sentiment repeatedly expressed by the characters in The Big Sky.

BibliographyAstro, Richard. “The Big Sky and the Limits of Wilderness Fiction.” Western American Literature (Summer, 1974): 105-114. Reasons that The Big Sky fails as a nostalgic historical novel depicting a tragic hero falling. Boone Caudill, a one-dimensional character who is ignorant of the effect of time on historical details, cannot learn from friends or enemies, cannot gain wisdom, and symbolizes bankrupt primitivism.Cracroft, Richard H. “The Big Sky: A. B. Guthrie’s Use of Historical Sources.” Western American Literature 6 (Fall, 1971): 163-176. Says Guthrie augments authenticity by writing into The Big Sky language, scenes, and incidents from works by Henry Marie Brackenridge, John Bradbury, Washington Irving, and George Frederick Ruxton, among others.Ford, Thomas W. A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Critical biography, chapter 3 of which treats The Big Sky in terms of its plot, Guthrie’s purposes (to present facts about mountain men; to convey his love of the West), the novel’s landscape pictures, its themes, (destructive violence and encroachment of civilization), its Calvinistic meditations, and its unadorned handling of time and space.Gale, Robert L. “Guthrie’s The Big Sky.” Explicator 38 (Summer, 1980): 7-8. Sees Jim Deakins’ offer of his own flesh to feed Boone Caudill and the goat’s gift of blood to Boone as forming a Holy Eucharist which Boone ignorantly spurns, resulting in unsociablity and natural desolation.Stewart, Donald C. “The Functions of Bird and Sky Imagery in Guthrie’s The Big Sky.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 19, no. 2 (1977): 53-61. Presents interlocking bird and sky similes and metaphors as transforming a well-organized novel into coherent, imaginative art. Images individualize characters and actions, underline moods, and elucidate themes.
Categories: Places