The Peripatetic Reviewer

I WAS not to the saddle born. The moment I put my left foot in the stirrup all doubt vanishes as to who is in control and the horse takes over. When, as a companion-tutor, I was entrusted with a small cavalcade of youngsters on the country roads of western New York, I had no choice but to emulate John Gilpin: the big black mare I was sentenced to had a feeling of superiority towards the sparky Morgan stallion Billy rode, and once we had cleared the highway our placid trot broke into a canter and then into a gallop. The marc had the longer st ride and more power, and this told on the hills. When we had the road to ourselves I would steer her toward the nearest farmhouse or barn and there we would halt, each quivering slightly and something of a curiosity to the farmer’s wife, until the regiment came up. Then the next lap began.
The first lariat I saw well-handled was by Will Rogers before the footlights; the first, six-gun was fired by Buffalo Bill as he rode around the ring, gracefully potting the glass balls tossed up for his aim by Indians. And my first, and only intimacy with cattle on the hoof was on a cattle boat bound for Glasgow. They were expected to gain between fifteen and twenty pounds on the crossing and I. was there to help them do it. Steers get seasick, though not as you or I, and it was my job to unchoke them if they fell to their knees, and otherwise to pamper them with water — Lord, how many thousand buckets! — and feed.
So it is easy to understand why I am such a push-over for Westerns — I enjoy reading about things beyond my ken. The building of the great cattle empires in the unfenced Southwest in the years directly after the Civil War has been a fascinating subject to me ever since I read The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter, and now comes a book which pieces together fact, recollection, and reliable hearsay to show how it was done. ShanghaiPierce (University of Oklahoma Press, $5.00) is a biography which the author, Chris Emmett, subtitles “a fair likeness.” The qualification matters, for Shanghai, who could be as cussed as barbed wire, hated and was hated by those who suspicioned or envied his success. He was big physically — six feet five in his prime, and six feet four and over two hundred when as a boy of nineteen he ran away from a hardscrabble farm in Rhode Island to seek his fortune in Texas. He grew big in resourcefulness and enterprise, for it was his ambition to have wealth as limitless as the Texas plains. This was his aim; cattle were his love, and early in the humiliation he suffered from his first range boss, Brad Grimes, he crystallized his philosophy: “Punish your enemies; reward your friends.”
There is a minimum of domestic detail in the book: Shang’s two marriages and the death of his only son are noted in the briefest of paragraphs. “When I married,” he wrote, “I only stayed home four days the first year.” No, this is a story of a. giant on the range, of his rivalry with other cattle barons, of his dealings with bankers and killers like John Wesley Hardin and Wild Bill Hickok; of the guile with which he branded and built up his maverick herd; of how he turned vigilante; of how he cooled off in the sanctuary of Abilene or Kansas City; of those who served him well, and of how in his prosperity Shang stood by those who had been loyal. The writing is sometimes crude, for Mr. Emmett has trouble with his pronouns; the motives and consequences are not always clear; but of Shanghai Pierce’s gusto, aim, cussedness, and individuality there is never a doubt.

The captive

With certain notable exceptions — The Leather-stocking Tales, Hiawatha, and Laughing Boy are three — books about Indians have left American readers uninterested and unmoved. In the foreword to his new short novel, The Light in the Forest (Knopf, $2.50), Conrad Richter makes this arresting observation: “In records of the Eastern border, the author was struck by the numbers of returned white captives who tried desperately to run away from their flesh-and-blood families and return to their Indian foster homes and the Indian mode of life.”He tells us that as a small boy, the son of an itinerant preacher in the Pennsylvania mountains, he himself tried to run off to Indian country, and we know from his fine novel, The Trees, of the spell which was exerted on him by the deep silent forests.
The Light in the Forest is a story which strives to give the authentic sensation of life in the Indian settlements and on the frontier before the Revolution. Johnny Butler is fifteen when the Delawares are forced to return him with other hostages to Colonel Bouquet. Johnny had been captured when he was four, and adopted by Cuyloga, whose son had died of yellow fever; he had been inoculated with the hardy tradition of a superior tribe who called him Lenni Quis or True Son. No trace of his white affiliation remains when Del, the red-haired trooper who has been assigned to translate for the boy, delivers the impassive, inwardly rebelling captive to his home. The story is of Johnny’s capt ivity, of his partial subjection, of his comparison of white comfort and integrity with the life he has known in the forest, and of his breakaway.
This book deals sternly with the whites, only two of whom, Parson Elder and little Gordie, Johnny’s younger brot her, evince any genuine sympathy for the wild youth. It tends to glorify the freedom and self-discipline of the Indians. When Johnny is taken to visit the ancient Negro basketmaker who had been captured when a little tyke, ’Bejance tells him his life story and adds: “. . . and the brightest piece was when I ran free in the woods. It had a glory I ain’t seen since.” If one makes due allowance for this moralizing pressure at each end, the book does succeed in probing closer t han I can remember to the resentment which the Indians felt against the whites and to that inflammable mob spirit which the conquering American too often let loose. Johnny is a symbol and there are times, though only a few of them, when he orates like one. The story of which he is the spark is informed with Mr. Richter’s love of lonely valleys and deep woods, and is authentic in its vignettes of the struggling settlement.

The quiet world

One of the pleasantest essayists to my taste is Alan Devoe. He and his wife Mary — she from County Wicklow in Ireland and he from a small town in New Jersey—have an uncommon love of nature; instead of traveling to the far places, they have elected to live in a semiremote farmstead in the Berkshires and to know with observing intimacy the life that goes on within their 125 acres. There is a delightful diversity in their “Particular Place”: wooded hills dense enough to shelter white-tailed deer and bobcat; open uplands; and a half-mile brook, the perfect haunt for herons, muskrats, and coons. It is this world-in-little, this earth parish, that Mr. Devoe describes so charmingly in his new book, Our Animal Nighbors (McGraw-Hill, $3.75). He writes to identify, to explain and treasure the adventures of the simple life.
‘It’s a good thing,” says Mr. Devoe, “to keep remembering how little we know and always to be ready for surprises.” With this alertness, he and Mary keep track of their woods neighbors, and his pages are alive with pictures of unsuspected nature. The white-footed mouse who mounted the molasses jug, inserted the tip of his tail into it, and then hauled up a tailful of sweet; the woodchuck who removed the jagged butts of glass and the ball of barbed wire stuffed into his home tunnel; the fox cub who followed Devoe home out of curiosity; the buck who had been grazed by a bullet and who came panting into the yard to be comforted, knowing that there he was safe — these are only a few of ihe countless episodes which make this such a calm and illuminating book.

The lost lovers

The Retreat by P. H. Newby (Knopf, $3.00) is a narrative which begins in the disorderly rout of the British from Dieppe and Dunkirk. Flying Officer Knight has been recovering in the hospital from the loss of his appendix when the retreat begins. He is well enough to walk but the long way and lack of food turn him dizzy before he gets to the docks. The town mayor braces him up momentarily and stows him aboard a transport. But the ship is bombed and set afire before she clears the harbor, and when Knight is rescued he is without clothes or identification papers and pretty thoroughly demoralized. In his desperation his mind reverts, not to his wife Helen, whom he had married on leave, but to Jane, his first love, now the wife of Hesketh, his best friend.
When Oliver slips from the hospital ship in England, he is marked as a deserter; he is intent only on finding Jane — explanations to the Air Ministry can come later — and when he does find her in the war center where her husband is working, she is in as much of a state as he is. She has had a miscarriage and this and the strain of the bombing have left her distraught and reckless. Together they elope into a psychiatric maze from which they lack the will power to escape. Knight’s wife and his commanding officer, McKendrick, close in — so too Jane’s husband and the police; and from then on the story is in the shadows.
The novel is as fitful as Irish weather — now in a flood of summer sun, and now in a mist of uncertainty. By inference we gather that Knight’s affection for his wife is fly-by-night and soon obliterated. His love for Jane is unpredictable and protective rather than passionate. Lost souls, they cling together in the illusion of escape, and it is Jane who, in the most vivid scene in the book, when they are swimming together at dawn, first attempts suicide.
Mr. Newby writes with descriptive power; his prose is cool, graphic, and sensitive. But his people are seen as through a glass partition, as if you were looking at patients rather than living with them as participants.