These Thousand Hills is A. B. Guthrie's third, and least successful, novel in his multi-volume attempt to chronicle fictionally the epic of Western America's development. His first, The Big Sky, was an account of mountain fur trappers in the 1830's. The Way West, which won Guthrie the 1950 Pulitzer Prize, depicted the westward trek of Lije Evans and his wagon train to Oregon.
Lat Evans, grandson of Lije, is the central character of These Thousand Hills. He exemplifies the settlers of America's last frontier, the Mountain West, and the establishment there of the Cattle Kingdom. Lat begins his rise as a Montana rancher by breaking away from his religious, impoverished parents and signing up for a cattle drive from Pendleton through Boise to Fort Benton, Montana. In Montana, he turns his winnings in a horse race (Callie, his prostitute mistress loaning the initial capital) into a profitable ranch. The politically ambitious Lat must, however, renounce his shady past and marries a Hoosier schoolmistress. His past quickly overtakes him, and he is simultaneously faced with embarrassing problems in which only compromise, rather than solution, is possible.
The Western Dilemma
In Lat Evans, Guthrie has created a plausible and likeable character, a man who symbolizes the major conflict of the frontier, that between the wishes for responsible individualism and for the protection of a developed social organization. His failure as a dramatic creation is, as Callie says, that "You think too much, Lat."
Guthrie has been praised for showing the thoughts of his character which is a happy contrast to the majority of Western fiction writers. However, the vast amounts of space he devotes to his characters' thinking adds little to an understanding of these personalities or of their environment. Guthrie's utilization of thought-process reminds one of the old men he describes in the opening sentence who "would sit and smoke and let a word fall and pause to hear the echoes of it as if they owned all time to speak their little pieces in."
Instead of concentrating on the narration of an improbable stream of consciousness, Guthrie might better focus on the scene in which his characters act. This is a book about a rancher, yet one learns nothing about ranching. The reader also misses the lonely magnificence of the land, which grips its inhabitants so profoundly. It is almost as if Guthrie has never traveled through some of the country about which he writes.
The Need for Dimension
But these faults were present in the other two works. Why is These Thousand Hills less powerful? Part of the answer lies in the fact that both The Big Sky and The Way West were built on Dick Summers, a nostalgic, self-sufficient mountain man, the finest character Guthrie has produced. But even more important, both books were given unity and direction by the utilization of physical movement through great distance in space. Guthrie conveyed this as successfully as did Tolstoy in War and Peace or Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. In These Thousand Hills he gave himself less opportunity to utilize this potential.
There is no doubt that Guthrie is also a skillful novelist in other ways. His technique reflects his year of work with Theodore Morrison here on a Nieman Fellowship in 1946. He is well worth reading for his handling of human drama alone. But one wonders if he can bring much understanding to the problem of the effect of the West and its history upon its inhabitants. His concentration on one archetypal individual gives his novels more continuity; emphasis on a diverse society might increase their value as social history. Guthrie seems in many ways rather like his creation, Dick Summers (a man who wishes with romantic nostalgia that the West had not been profaned by settlement), rather than a person capable of intellectually determining the spirit of the Westerner. But then reflection on one's cultural background usually comes at a later period in history than he is now depicting, a time when physical obstacles have been overcome. There is hope that in his forthcoming novels he will attempt a deeper analysis of the meaning of the West.