A Pioneer Spirit

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Sunday, September 13, 2009


A Biography of A. B. Guthrie Jr.

By Jackson J. Benson

Univ. of Nebraska. 322 pp. $29.95

A childhood spent on the eastern edge of the Rockies in Choteau, Mont., kindled novelist A. B. Guthrie's lifelong interest in the pioneers who had settled there 70 years before his family arrived by stagecoach in 1901. Work as a reporter at the Lexington, Ky., Leader taught him to write tight prose. Mentors from Harvard's Nieman Fellowship program and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference helped him transform notes on color-coded 3x5 cards crammed in shoeboxes into "The Big Sky," the first installment in a six-novel saga of the West that begins in the 1830s and ends at the outbreak of World War I. Critical praise and a Pulitzer for "The Way West" (1949), the second in the series, confirmed Guthrie's success in moving fiction about the West from what he called "gun and gallop" pulps toward realistic tales of trappers and settlers who destroyed the land they loved.

In this caring yet objective account of the novelist's life, Jackson J. Benson uncovers the passions and demons in Guthrie's life away from the desk, lending the biography meaning for general readers as well as writers. Guthrie's first marriage, to his high school sweetheart, curdled over the years and ended in divorce. His writing stalled, and he drank heavily. A second marriage got him up and writing and down to three glasses of wine a day. He published novels and articles well into his 70s and became a vocal conservationist. He died in 1991 at the age of 90.

Benson values detail, as did Guthrie. Many scenes in the biography have the rich appeal of good fiction. Guthrie's mother works a wood-burning stove to keep its temperature even. On his first morning in Choteau, Guthrie's father is stunned by vistas of the Rockies, the Teton River and seemingly endless flatlands. In the summer, Guthrie and other writers gather at his lakeside cabin in the mountains to swap yarns, manuscripts and sometimes blistering comments. Many a writer will wish he'd been there.

-- Gerald Bartell

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