Monday, September 15, 2014

Pulitzer Project: The Way West

A few months ago when I mentioned that The Way West was coming up next on the Pulitzer list, BBC commented that I'd enjoy reading it. He was right. There are some dark themes in the subtext of The Way West, but overall it does qualify as "light reading." I breezed through it pretty quickly.

The book has a sticker on the spine indicating that the library that provided it through Interlibrary Loan considered it a Western when they cataloged it. Technically it is -- it's the story of a group of people who decide to emigrate from Missouri to Oregon in the 1840s. Along the way they have all the usual adventures and mishaps typical of pioneers who decide to travel by wagon train: encounters with various Native American tribes, wagons breaking down, people dropping dead from fever or snake bite.

As might be expected, there's a potentially volatile mix of personalities in the wagon train company. The group's self-appointed leader, Tadlock, is a bit of a bully, a bigot, and remarkably inflexible, one of those people who's convinced he knows it all so he resents the hell out of having to listen to advice from the "pilot," the experienced mountain man they've hired to guide them from Independence, Missouri, to the Dalles on the Columbia River. He's also not real interested in listening to the company as a whole; he's pretty much a "my way or not at all" type of guy. It takes a few hundred miles, but eventually Tadlock's personality forces the group to think about a change in leadership.

There's soap opera material -- a married couple that's unhappy in the bedroom so the husband strays and in the process "ruins" a naive teenage girl. There's the usual colorful character, what I think of as the Festus type, the fellow who gets written into scripts for comic relief, although he's missing from the cast list for the movie version. No doubt the script writers tweaked another of the supporting characters to incorporate occasional humor just as they turned Mercy McBee's naivete into what one movie review described as Sally Field's on-screen debut as a tramp.

Although a goodly number of various characters are introduced, the narrative pivots around two men: Lije Evans, a farmer who mixes personal ambition with a desire to be part of something bigger, and Dick Summers, the mountain man. Summers is described as one of the oldest characters in the book -- he's 49 -- and there's a lot of concern expressed by the men organizing the wagon train company that Summers is too old, too much of a geezer to stand up to the rigors of the trip. Once the trek actually begins, of course, it's obvious Dick is one of the few people with the stamina and the smarts to make it all the way to Oregon.

Lije and Dick are among the handful of characters in the book who have actual first names. Most of the others are referred to only as "Daugherty" or "McBee." As the novel progresses, we view the action primarily from the perspectives of Lije and Dick, although there are occasional insights from supporting characters. Lije is looking forward to a new life in Oregon; Dick is looking back at his old life as a mountain man.

Overall, The Way West is an enjoyable read that manages to avoid sentimentalizing the hardships of pioneer life. Life isn't easy, but that's just the way it is. The characters who do muse about tough times also acknowledge they had a pretty good idea of what they were getting into before they headed out on the Oregon Trail.

I have not seen the 1967 movie based on this book. It starred Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Sally Field. Based on the Wikipedia summary, the movie deviates wildly from the book -- about the only plot points they seem to have in common is there's a wagon train going west and a married man cheats on his wife. I liked the book so I think I'll pass on seeing exactly how it got mutilated for the big screen.

As far as where this book ranks in the overall list of Pulitzer winners, I'd put it in the middle of the pack. It's not up there in the top tier, but it's definitely readable. Some of the language is a little dated (the infamous N word gets bandied about a fair amount, which is a tad odd considering there are no black characters in the book), but not to the point where it slows a reader down. So would I recommend this book to anyone else? Yes, especially if a person likes historical novels or Westerns.

Next up? The Town by Conrad Richter.


  1. The way west series I read was twenty-four paperbacks starting from when the very first wagon train formed to go west. The first person picked up to start forming it was a lady on the east coast.

  2. It may have turned out to be a different book, but it was still good.


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