by Jean Henry Mead
The Pulitizer winner called himself “Bud” because he thought Alfred Bertram was a “sissy name.” He lived near the face of Montana’s rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range on a 160-acre, sagebrush-covered hideaway with his wife Carol, who was nearly as young as A. B. Guthrie’s spirit.
The newspaper man-turned-novelist had been credited with bringing respect to the Western genre, but his work wasn't always well received by the reading public. A perfectionist, his outspoken criticism of popular Western fiction, environmental issues, and various social problems often left him up the proverbial creek with mainstream America. But those of us who worry about the planet’s future applauded his ominous warnings.
The novelist’s first and highly acclaimed novel, The Big Sky, was followed by Pulitzer winner, The Way West. The later, he said, was written in six months because his publisher was on the verge of bankruptcy. Four novels followed in his Western series as well as four mysteries, a collection of short stories and a children’s book. Three of his Western novels were adapted to screenplays and Guthrie wrote several others without prior experience, including “Shane” for director George Stevens.
Visiting the wise old man of the Western literary mountain was no small feat, but well worth the journey. The trail leading to his comfortable, modified A-frame home in north-central Montana followed a narrow, patched and potholed road to a pair of cattle guards and small metal bridge which emptied into earthen tire tracks. A quarter mile off the road, hunkered down in native foliage, was Guthrie’s Garden of Eden, at peace with its surroundings.
Books were the main source of entertainment there and the Guthries read and talked until two or three in the morning. Television reception was nonexistent in the area, and they debated whether to invest in a satellite dish. Guthire called the receivers “unsightly” so they decided against buying one. Their nearest neighbor was three miles away, but frequent visitors arrived from various parts of the country to talk shop and renew old friendships.
A black toy poodle announced my arrival long before I reached the front door. Greeted warmly by both Guthries, I was invited into the kitchen for a slice of warm, home-baked coffee cake and a cold glass of milk. The author’s wife hovered in and around the interview area, serving, when needed, as her husband’s memory. She also added comments of her own and made it clear that her husband was not in the same league with other Western Writers.
When asked about his heritage, Guthrie said the information could be found in Who’s Who, but when pressed for his own version, he promptly complied. Basically a shy man, nervous man, he revealed a native humor that immediately put me at ease.
(Next week, the interview.)