The Peripatetic Reviewer

FOR three days last week I had the pleasure of exploring a brook. The country was new to me, and the little stream seemed quite inconspicuous judged by the open stretch which flowed into the pond by the sawmill. I made my first entrance wading and splashing upstream against the current, and had gone hardly a quarter of a mile when I realized that this was a wilder, colder, deeper brook than I had imagined, and one that had not been soiled by visitors. I saw enough to invite another trip, and the next morning I followed the tote road into the woods, pausing now and then to eat the wild strawberries which lay in scarlet handfuls under the tall grass.
The right fork eventually led me into a clearing and on through thick alders and spruce into the calling water; now I started downstream, hugging the shore so as not to throw my shadow on the stream, and the journey which had taken me but half an hour by road unwound itself in three miles of twisting, tree-shadowed, rocky brook. I did not re-emerge at the mill until long past lunch. All that way — and I went slowly — I did not see a single worm can, empty bottle, or discarded bedspring. (I wonder why Americans throw their rusting ironware, particularly bedding, into the nearest stream.)
What one first perceives in the brook world is the beauty of the light: in this sandy run the water is as clear as gin, but down yonder as it coils under the shadow of the spruce it is blue-black, its depth a mystery. In each run one feels the cool of the shade, the fragrance of the conifers — this is the breath of the brook. One goes on to notice the innumerable prints of deer, fresh on the sand bars where they have paused to drink; as I rounded one bend, I saw in the dark pool below me the smallheaded arrow of a swimming animal, ferret, muskrat, or otter — it was too far to tell; and all along I saw what nature’s engineering will do to curl a brook.
It is always the biggest trees that fall, and their great bulk athwart the stream forms bridges, forms islands, forms pockets where the bigger brook trout lurk. These windfalls are sometimes powerful enough to break the brook in two. I spent some time at the forks where this had happened; a big hardwood provided the block for a dam of accumulated timber, mortised together by the spring run. The branch that curved off to the right was shallow, chattering, sunlit, but the one to the left ran deep under so many boles that my passage that way was out of the question. I probed the headwater with a stick and could not touch bottom; the fast current had eaten under the banks, forming the most desirable residences. “Lord,” I thought, “what one could do here with worms and a hook!” I dropped in some scraps of bark and there was a swirl where the water sucked under the nearest log. “And how would you get him out if you got him on?” asked reason.
Eventually I wrenched myself away from that unfathomable run and went wading down the shallow branch. “What divides,” I thought to myself, “must come together again in a really good pool. Perhaps a small Mickey Finn might do some business!” It did.
The dimensions of the brook world are everchanging and this is part of its fascination. At one moment you are striding along like Paul Bunyan in a dwarfed river; then as you climb over the hurdle of a fallen tree, placing your boot carefully on the lower level, your balance teeters as the rotted wood gives way and you plunge forward into a pothole with a force that might have broken your rod or your leg. The conceit is jarred out of you and you right yourself with the feeling that this is a wild place.
The third day I went back as the afternoon shadows were falling. I knew where the pools were now, and I was intent on exploring with my fly rod every nook and cranny of the upper reaches, lovingly and minutely. For the more open water I had a little red fly with a yellow body, and for the deep pockets along the bank and under tree roots dry flies. Fishing is an act of privacy, and in a seclusion like this, one naturally talks to oneself. Rather irritably for the most part, for the woods are always conspiring against you. The kingfisher has flown ahead giving his warning, but your real antagonists are the trees at your back. You look behind yon measuring the space for your backcast, and then facing front you concent rate on the square yard of water where you mean to place your dry fly, not in midstream but as close to the bank as you dare. You strip off line and cock your wrist for the first cast — and at that point one of two enemies may intervene: the spruce at your back reaches out its arms to enmesh your leader, or the bank at which you are aiming pushes out a few inches further than you thought and snags your fly tight. The printable portions of your monologue sound like this: “There, right there, under the root . . . let it drift down to him . . . now . . . damn it, you’re in the trees again . . . you can’t lose that fly . . . will it pull out? . . . easy, now, easy . . . thank the Lord . . . now, not so much line, you fool . . . that’s no good . . . get it closer to his hole . . . closer, closer . . . oh, you ass, you’ve caught the bank . . . boy, you certainly have the touch today . . .”
But once in a while you do have it; the little fly floats down to the surface and the current edges it up to the door of the cavern; there is an explosion of water, the flash of a pink belly, and you are fast to a brookie, the most beautiful and certainly the sweetest-tasting of any small fish.

A Yankee Walton

Calmness and consideration are qualities which most anglers develop late in life, if at all. My friend Leslie P. Thompson has them both, together with an artistic touch which makes him unique among New England fishermen. Brook trout, the native, is his first and deepest love, but he has had plenty of other adventures in waters sweet and salt: he has landed a sixteen-pound carp from the Charles River (I know, for I ate some of it thoroughly saturated in a wine sauce); he has taken salmon from the Kedgwick, striped bass on a fly rod, delicious smelt from a float in the center of Boston Harbor — all this he writes about with modest wisdom and natural charm in Fishing in New England (Van Nostrand, $8.50), a book which shows him as he is, a delightful companion, a conservationist in the best sense, a Yankee Walton in his zest and standards.
He is an artist by profession, and his water colors of the insects on which trout feed — the dun, the May fly, the sedge, the nymph — are as lovely as they are accurate. For years he has been capturing, studying, and painting these delicate creatures, and his knowledge of them has made him a master of pools and the fly rod — and a most entertaining instructor.

The girl who understood

R. C. Hutchinson is an English novelist who in his earlier work, particularly in Shining Scabbard, his story of the Dreyfus case, has shown a remarkable capacity for delineating the French temperament. Catherine, the heroine of his new book, The Stepmother (Rinehart, $3.50), is of french extraction, rather plain and inaccessible during her girlhood in Quebec, and so shut off from love; by her mid-forties she has attained a quiet, intelligent distinction. In her loneliness, at Geneva she has the charm and sympathy to attract her boss, Lawrence Ashland, the hard-driving Deputy UnderSecretary of a UK Delegation. Lawrence is ten years her senior, a widower and dedicated to his work, and it takes temper and fatigue to wear him down to the point of discovering Catherine. His sudden proposal offers her sanctuary and devotion if not passion, and so the story begins.
But Catherine finds that her role as stewardess of Lawrence’s country place, cultivating decorous friendships with village ladies and furnishing the amenities of her husband’s weekend visits, is a good deal more difficult than she had imagined. Lawrence early tells her that he can never give her the love he gave his first wife, and the trouble is that Josephine — or Josie as the family dote on calling her — though dead, is still in command of the household. Josephine, who had been crippled in a hunting accident, was a woman “to whom a peculiar affliction had given a superlative virtue,” and her lovely tyranny had taken heavy toll of both her children. Stephen, her only son, sensitive and peculiarly susceptible to pain, had shot a fellow officer during the invasion of Germany, and the ensuing scandal has twisted him light as a piano wire. Patricia, the married daughter, had fled to Oxford. Lawrence, the unmalleable, remained at home obsessed by his work, obsessed with his memories.
So it is given to Catherine with her quick divination and her French logic to find the truth about this neurotic, half-living household and, having found it, to say the words which will release them from their bondage. Because she is herself so real, so hungry for affection, so aware and unafraid of the barriers in the English character, she forces herself to do what as a younger woman she would not have had the courage to undertake, and in her modesty she does not realize until the end the effect her truth and vitality are having upon the moribund.
The art of this novel is the way in which Mr. Hutchinson hits let the light fall upon a small group, three men and five women, each one of whom has been drawn to life. There are a few periods of tedium — the lugubrious nights of Stephen’s illness is one such — but these are more than offset by the fidelity and vivacity of the fine scenes: the night of Stephen’s crisis; Catherine’s encounters with Vere, Stephen’s fiancée; the endearing days in Oxford; and the splendid candor with which Catherine breaks through the insulating partition between father and son. The Stepmother is a sensitive and civilized story.

The hell and humanity of war

An Irish playwright who scored his initial success with the Abbey Theatre and whose unforgettable play, The Moon in the Yellow River, was a hit in London and Dublin, Denis Johnston had just turned forty when he was sent out to the British Eighth Army as a war reporter for the BBC, He reached the front at the time Rommel had the British on the run; he worked in the desert, then in the long uphill campaign through Italy, and finally with the Americans in Germany; and out of his experiences has come a powerfully written book, Nine Rivers from Jordan (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $5,00). One cannot classify it, for it is autobiography, adventure, parody, mysticism, and farce.
This is the realistic and spiritual odyssey of one man in war. It is a moving and personal document charged with the frustrations, the comedy, the gallantry, and the revulsion of the conflict. The narrative begins in Egypt as we follow the retreat and ultimate victory at El Alamein. We see the author at a formal dinner with the Arabs and in a forward command post with a hot-tempered South African general who is blasting the RAF for having bombed his trucks. We feel Johnston’s exasperation as a war correspondent not knowing whether his recorded discs have reached London, and his humiliation when he hears his stale records being played on the desert air for the jeering troops. We have his vivid portraits of Montgomery and Churchill and Alexander, and his more intimate ihumbnail sketches of those against whom he competed in his search for news that would pass the censor.
The author describes the three periods of his war experiences this way: Egypt and the Arabs were his Homeric period; the British and the Italians his middle period; the Americans and the Germans his final, New World period. And this categorical development marks a moral development in his own life. He observes that the first steps being taken in our post-war policy toward the Germans will be harsh, and he strenuously objects. His sympathy and concern are still with the Germans. He finds himself in Eckartsberga, where the German girl lived who wrote the letters he had come upon in Egypt. She is nowhere to be found, but he is directed to a concentration camp at the outskirts of town. It is there that he beholds the full horror of war, and its impact is devastating.
Denis Johnston is a fine reporter, a romantic Irishman, and a sensitive, searching, conscientious human being who is interested in all manner of men and has a wonderful time talking to himself about religion, about his divorced wife, about his young son whom he misses, about his love of poetry, and about anything else that catches the attention of his warm-blooded Irish imagination. He writes with a zest, a power, and a sense of mystery which T. E. Lawrence would have respected.