Book Review: The Way West

If you are looking for a GREAT book of frontier fiction, A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s book The Way West is a must read.

Learning about the American frontier can happen a variety of ways. Generally, it is best to read journals, look at primary sources, and do living history activities. All of these methods can really enhance what you know about the time period. While they are all great, sometimes a good book of historical fiction can teach you just as much as a primary source. I’ve written a few, and hope they can teach as much as they can entertain. Fiction isn’t always untrue, and can be a good learning tool depending on the purpose of the book. One author who used historical fiction as a great way to learn about the Oregon Trail was A.B. Guthrie Jr is his book The Way West.

The Way West is Guthrie’s second book in a frontier series he wrote over the course of his life. This book comes on the heels of The Big Sky, a wonderful read about a Missouri man, turned mountain man, named Boone Caudill. In The Big Sky, you also meet veteran mountain man Dick Summers who mentors Caudill as he learns the ways of the mountains. Eventually, Caudill and Summers separate, as Summers retreats back to Missouri to retire from mountain life.

The Way West begins on the Missouri frontier in the 1840’s with a series of characters looking to take that great leap across the country called The Oregon Trail. A collection of farmers and fame seekers wants to claim the land for America, but they need a guide to take them across the plains. Guthrie reunites readers with Dick Summers as he grudgingly agrees to hire on as the guide of the company. During their journey, the wagon train struggles against the challenges of the trail, and Guthrie paints a vivid picture of what that toil would have been like.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in frontier history for several reasons. First off, Guthrie possesses an excellent knowledge of daily life on the frontier. If a character says something, does something, thinks something, or uses something; you can bet it reflects an accuracy of the time period. When writing historical fiction, the devil is in the details, and Guthrie nails them down clean.

Secondly, Guthrie is an absolutely phenomenal writer. Actually, this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for the excellent manuscript. If you want to feel as if you actually need to wipe the grime from a long day on the trail, pick up this Guthrie classic.

Finally, The Way West is a great read because it touches on the experiences and perspectives of many different people in the journey. Guthrie imagines how the trail would have been different for men and women, old and young, and those excited about the trail, and those being drug along. There are preachers and sinners, leaders and followers, righteous and unrighteous, and Guthrie takes you into the heart of each. Simply put, there are so many characters in this book, it would be hard not to find one that you enjoy following through the trials and tribulations.

All in all, this book is a 5-star, two thumbs up, TEN on my list. I’d recommend it to anyone out there looking to learn about history, the frontier, the Oregon Trail, or someone who just wants a great read. You won’t be disappointed.