This book is such a good book that when I finished reading it I had to read it again. It’s subtitled ‘Essays on the American West’, although the 12 chapters are not so much essays as they are book reviews. That’s a small quibble, however. They are all worth reading, and re-reading.
The title is a bit awkward: ‘Sacagawea’ was an Indian woman who, with her husband, was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri in 1804 and acted as interpreter. It seems that everyone on the expedition had trouble pronouncing her name and so they renamed her ‘Janey’. She gave birth during the trip and proved a great asset to the exploratory voyage, such that the white men become quite fond of her and her family. She and her child were also a great asset to the expedition because Indian tribes encountered on the way, seeing an Indian womean and a child as part of the group, were much more friendly than they otherwise might have been.
I did not know anything about this expedition into the (then) unknown interior of the western United States (as it was later to become) and the author spends a good deal of time on The Journals of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition issued in 2000 by the University of Nebraska and draws on these journals for material not alone in the essay he devotes to them, but in several other essays as well.
McMurtry has much to say on the mythology of the ‘wild west’ which has come to be received as the actual truth of what happened ‘when the West was won’. We know of course that the west was stolen, and its inhabitants murdered. Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Hikcock, Gene Autry… Figments of the imagination, or at least it’s true to say that their deeds of derring-do were figments. In fact it was all just the same old story: Massacrre, pilage and rape. It’s good to see these issues treated dispassionately, and truthfully.
Furthermore, I am pleased with this book because I am intensly interested in that period of history around the initial exploration of the New World (North and South) and all its attendant adventures and miseries. And miserable certainly was the fate of the native peoples. Ironically, according to McMurtry, there is in fact very little authentic record of that lost world except in writings like those of Lewis and Clark, and there are, according to him, precious few of those. What has come down to us in the way of authentic first-hand accounts are a few items like Kit Carson’s biography (itself somewhat episodic, according to McMurtry), and other biographies, or autobiographies of ‘frontiersmen’, which are intent on painting their subjects in the best light possible and at the considerable expense of truth.
These Lewis and Clarke journals are, on the other hand, first-hand accounts, like the work of the first painters to get out across the frontier, George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller and a few others. The closing paragraph of the book is worth quoting for the way it summarises the importance of the the work of these writers and painters that speaks to us across the centuries: “Thanks to the character, courage and ability of these few men we can now know what the West was like before the prarie was plowed, the buffalo killed, the native peoples broken, and the mighty Missouri dammed”.