Salar the Salmon
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.50]
IN the passing of not many years a remarkable book called Tarka the Otter (which won the Hawthornden Prize) has become what we call a classic. It does not seem possible that Henry Williamson has now written another of the same shape and spiritual stamp as to rank with the first. I submit that he has, and that Salar the Salmon — because there exist in our world more fishermen than men of otter interest—will not only take its place beside a sister book, but will claim the larger public. This is another story of Tarka’s Two Rivers that flow to the Severn Sea, a narrative so like a river in its running, and so marvelous in its detail of observation and in the poetry of its prose, that I can humbly say but two words: read it. Read it for the sinew, strength, and joyfulness of purpose in which it so dwarfs the season’s catch of neurotic novels. Mr. Williamson was three and a half years writing Tarka; he spent seven months on Salar. Yet the conception, discipline, action, and art of the two are obviously inseparable: Tarka a little easier in flow, a little more of a story; and Salar a little richer in assembly, more compressed in structure, but even fresher with fine and vital phrase.
It is inevitable that the two books should be spoken of together. And it is a curious and skillful thing that in retracing somewhat the same ground and river contours Mr. Williamson can shift our sympathy from the otters which ate the salmon to the salmon that flee the otters. Tarka we knew from birth to death; Salar is five years old when he enters the estuary from the Atlantic, with two years of river and three of sea life behind him. His biography covers the sixth year of his kelthood, and his adventures from the reef of seals and coastal shallows to the headwaters of the stream and the spawning bed in Fireplay Pool. It is said that Mr. Williamson in his own West Country has spent thousands of hours in the study of the ways of salmon. As a boy I lived for several years by one of the great Chinook rivers of Oregon, where I witnessed things variably akin to this; and looking back I am only the more amazed that one man can have observed so much. It is river existence to read his book. You do not read: you live with Salar, with Gralaks the grilse, with Trutta the old sea trout, with Nog the heron, and with Shiner the sometime poacher of Devonshire dialect and gentle understanding. The book is imaginatively illustrated by C. F. Tunuicliffe.
Many notes on the flyleaf of my Tarka reminded me that in Salar I should meet again not only an enchanting and personal style but a special vocabulary of Saxon, Roman, and water-gliddery words. But let me say that these are never words to dazzle, but sudden, apt, and arresting, as are the author’s names of flies and creatures: the grilse Gleisdyn, Libellula the dragonfly, Danica the mayfly, Nirra the bat, Cœlebs (the bachelor) the chaffinch. And also these are no child-book names, but a part of the Williamson half-mythical mythology. Other words occur with a strange, gravelly brightness: shillets, scriddicks, leat, dimmit, kype, dapp, alevin, and stannic. ‘ The needle-notes of mice,’‘rising to fall vanishing,’ such beautiful botanics as ‘hemp agrimony, hart’s-tongue ferns, water-violets, and yellow flowers of mimulus at the edges of rock and river’: such is the run of the book. It is finished observance, finished thinking, and finished writing. I admire in Mr. Williamson the completeness of all minor histories moving through the major. His mayfly chapter alone surpasses the famous passage in Maeterlinck. He is like the water-ousel he described so valiantly in Tarka: ’As he flew he sang, sipping his song from the stones and the water.’