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Boyhood and the great outdoors are the pleasant themes in new books of memoirs
Robert Cantwell
August 02, 1965
Under outdoor assets enter fishing," says Alfred Bertram Guthrie Jr. in The Blue Hen's Chick (McGraw-Hill, $5.95), sounding a theme that is repeated frequently these days in the recollections of literary men. In 1901 Guthrie's father, an Indiana schoolteacher, moved to Montana to become the principal of the high school at Choteau, a town 30 miles from the railroad with one church, two general stores, and four saloons. As the author of that pioneer work of western realism, The Big Sky, Mr. Guthrie does not minimize the harshness of life in Choteau. Six of his mother's nine children died. His father managed to escape being called a sissy, but it took heroic efforts—once he walked up to a revolver pointed at him and took possession of it. And even readers with reasonably strong stomachs may object to the unfunny outhouse wit and the well-nigh lethal practical jokes that passed for humor in that country.
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August 02, 1965

Boyhood And The Great Outdoors Are The Pleasant Themes In New Books Of Memoirs

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Under outdoor assets enter fishing," says Alfred Bertram Guthrie Jr. in The Blue Hen's Chick ( McGraw-Hill, $5.95), sounding a theme that is repeated frequently these days in the recollections of literary men. In 1901 Guthrie's father, an Indiana schoolteacher, moved to Montana to become the principal of the high school at Choteau, a town 30 miles from the railroad with one church, two general stores, and four saloons. As the author of that pioneer work of western realism, The Big Sky, Mr. Guthrie does not minimize the harshness of life in Choteau. Six of his mother's nine children died. His father managed to escape being called a sissy, but it took heroic efforts—once he walked up to a revolver pointed at him and took possession of it. And even readers with reasonably strong stomachs may object to the unfunny outhouse wit and the well-nigh lethal practical jokes that passed for humor in that country.

But these recollections of outdoor life have an elemental integrity and sometimes a sort of crabbed poetry. "The joy of hunting was beyond accounting, once I was old enough to be trusted, if anxiously, with my father's old shotgun," Guthrie says. When the season opened, the boys did their chores in the morning. As soon as school was out they raced home, changed their clothes, grabbed guns and shells and hurried miles across country to beaver dams and potholes. "I loved to bring the birds down, to take quick aim at mallards, pintails, teal and prairie chicken on the wing and feel the 12-gauge bounce against my battered shoulder and see the flight stopped short and the broken target fall." When night began closing in they went home heavily laden, singing as they slogged along, accompanied by the unforgettable "wild smell of blood and feathers and exploded powder."

Guthrie's literary recollections are so perfunctory in comparison with these that one wonders how much his newspaper work, or his spectacular success in Hollywood with Shane, really meant to him.

Outdoor life, and especially hunting, serves as an even more important spur to literary inspiration in Remember the Wind, by William Chapman (Lippincott, $5.95), an unusual and original memoir of life on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. A good-natured, sociable individual, Chapman was enjoying life as an editor and a man of letters in Princeton, N.J., when the illness of his youngest son sent the whole family West. Trying to find a climate that would help the boy's asthma, they followed a zigzag course from Fort Defiance, Ariz. to a fishing camp on the Pine River in Colorado, to a cabin on the Madison River in Wyoming, this last made memorable because a friendly moose stopped by every night for a drink at the river. They came to a halt after 8,000 miles at the Standing Rock Reservation, where for three years Chapman ran an Episcopal school for Indian youngsters.

About half of Remember the Wind consists of wryly understated accounts of scholastic misadventures as Chapman tried to control 180 enigmatic Sioux boys and girls. The remainder is made up of sharp, unstudied sketches, generally vivid and sometimes brilliant, of reservation characters who ranged from heroes to killers. One of the most memorable characters was Ambrose Little Ghost (SI, Nov. 25, 1963), with whom Chapman's boys hunted, "the greatest hunter I have ever known. The first time they went with him—I had never met him before—I lent him my .30/06 Enfield and four shells. They came back with three deer in the back of the pickup and, without saying a word, Little Ghost handed me one shell."

Such books as The Blue Hen's Chick and Remember the Wind make it plain that for literary men hunting and fishing are not so much recreation as tangible links with the past. Chapman makes that past remarkably alive, sometimes because of the people he knew, like Harry Bone Club, whose father fought against Custer, more often because the incidents of modern school life seem to be survivals of things that once happened every day. The long dark winters when life revolved around the basketball games do not seem essentially different from the days when Lewis and Clark wintered nearby. The school team was excellent: "The Sioux came charging down the court, teeth gleaming, hair bouncing, graceful, daring. It was three fast passes and shoot.... It was the only time you ever saw the local Indians behaving in a way which somehow reflected a touch of their ancient attitude toward life, and you regretted that there could not be more of it for them in these times."

In The Woods and the Sea, (Knopf, $5.95), the naturalist Dudley Cammett Lunt makes the theme of these books explicit: "I am one who likes links with the past," he says. His past is a savory Maine boyhood: his grandfather's house, remembered for its abundance of cherries and peaches; delightful summers at Pine Point, where fire balloons were sent aloft on the Fourth of July if there was a light offshore air; the marvelous clambakes of Uncle Ira on the shore of some tidal river, reachable only by birchbark canoe; early canoe trips past the relics of log drives; "booms, cribs, sluices, dams, tramways, yards, tote roads." Many of these relics are rotting into oblivion. "The forest is taking over again," Lunt says. He closes his book with a plea that motors be kept from the proposed Allagash National Riverway. "Keep it wild," he says. "For God's sake, keep it wild."

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