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Books: Horse Opera Trail

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THESE THOUSAND HILLS (346 pp.)—A. B. Gufhrie Jr.—Houghton Mifflin ($3.95).

The events and characters of most historical novels about the U.S. West are interchangeable parts that have worn smooth with use. But in 1947 Montana’s Alfred Bertram (“Bud”) Guthrie Jr. took the opening of the West away from the cliché specialists with The Big Sky, a knowing, realistic book about the early traders, trappers and scouts that was as unashamedly rich in poetic evocation as it was in gritty plain talk. In 1949 came The Way West, a sober but richly authentic account of the great migration by wagon to the Pacific coast. Guthrie’s new book, These Thousand Hills, again justifies the literary claim he has staked out in that vast country, but it also shows that when a novelist sets a Western hero on a horse, he is apt. sooner or later, to follow a trail that leads to horse opera.

Hero Lat Evans is 20 in 1880, a little tired of the Oregon his people pioneered, more than a little tired of his God-fearing father, who hugs his Methodism as closely as his near poverty hugs him. Lat heads for the wider spaces of Montana, breaks broncs, hunts wolves, wins a pot on a horse race and finally satisfies his ambition—a ranch of his own. But all the time he progresses in the field of livestock, he is tethered to that stock character of all cowtowns, a prostitute with a heart of gold. Gallic is slim and blonde and high-breasted, and it was love for both from the first time he paid cash on the barrelhead. When Lat becomes a big man, it is plain that Gallic will not do. But the educated niece of a prosperous storekeeper will and does, at the cost of Callie’s broken heart.

Author Guthrie is still the sensitive, loving researcher more than he is the true novelist. With all its virtues, his story is so commonplace and predictable that the reader cannot help projecting it onto a big screen, with Gary Cooper doing a wonderful job as Lat Evans. But throughout These Thousand Hills there are fine evocations of what the country was like, the authentic sense of place that is Guthrie’s trademark. Even the standard brushes with Indians and rustlers have a quality of this-is-how-it-was, and the speech rings as true as the slap of a silver dollar on a saloon bar.

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