The Peripatetic Reviewer
BACK in the Dark Ages before the motel was invented I was obliged to spend a day in Fredericton, New Brunswick, awaiting the arrival of a friend who was to drive me and my gear to a fishing camp in the Frasier Forest. I arrived in Fredericton by the Gull, that convivial night train from Boston which had a habit of pausing on the bridges overlooking the good trout streams so that the anglers within could torment themselves by watching the big ones rise. With me I had brought the page proofs of Henry Seidel Canby’s life of Thoreau, which I was reading and now meant to review, mailing my copy back to Boston before I began my holiday. The problem was to find a quiet hotel room. The Beaverbrook was full, and the old-fashioned boardinghouse which finally took me in had partitions of the thinnest beaver board, as I was soon to realize. Into the room one beyond mine moved a lumberjack with his bankroll and a mighty thirst. He had brought his bottles with him, and the word spread, for he was soon visited by companions of both sexes. The talk and the carousing which followed had a smoky, woodsy flavor which would have made Henry Thoreau grin before he moved out, but I couldn’t move. There I was, stuck with my copy to finish, and no review ever came harder.
That was twenty-five years ago, and in the interval, trains have been abandoned; we supply our own transportation, and we stay in motels. Gone are the dusty carpets of the village inn, the smell of the rubbery treads on the stairs, the bed with the crease in the middle and the broken spring, the dead flies and the live cockroach. And from a handful of tiny cabins encircling a neon-lit office the motel has grown to a vast ranch house of glass and chromium.
At the outset the motel was a rudimentary affair: jerry-built, so close to the highway that you heard the trucks through your sleep, and only mildly resistant to bad weather. I remember one rainy night we spent in Machias, Maine, when you could cut the damp inside the cabin with a knife, and another cabin on the bank of the Penobscot where the antlers over the front door were small compensation for the thin and lumpy mattress. But even the most primitive motel was handy, and it facilitated the early start which is so essential on long runs. Today what we expect is cleanliness, good beds, hot water, and television; and in the best of them, soundproof partitions, a firstrate restaurant, and a swimming pool. We are a nation on wheels, and it was inevitable that we should demand a comfortable oasis for our onenight stands.
Those of us who make repeated trips to a happy hunting ground, as I do to the Maritime Provinces, telephone ahead for reservations at our favorite stops, such as the Charter House on Route 2 near Bangor, Maine, or the Eden Rock at Fredericton on its high bluff overlooking the St. John River. The latter has what only a few provide, space to walk and a view worth photographing. But of all the indispensables, I still put good thick partitions at the top of the list. I remember a friend of mine telling me of her disturbed night in a motel on the West Coast where the partitions were tissue-thin and where she had the bad luck to draw a honeymoon couple in the next room. Lovers, like children, are an occupational hazard in a motel, and I suppose it runs counter to civil rights that they should be placed in segregated areas.
But the time has come when the management of a first-class motel must be more discriminating about its guests. For the glittering Big House on the Hill has become both an oasis for travelers and a social center for the local townsfolk, who go there for an evening of cards with friends who are guests. But it is bad management to place a weary couple, needing their sleep and pledged to an earlymorning start, in immediate proximity to the room of card players, who have every intention of continuing with their bridge or poker until after midnight. Here is a case where laughter in the next room is a damned nuisance; I have twice been victimized by this situation, and I resent it, just as I suspect the card players may have resented the repacking of my luggage and the slamming of my trunk at seven thirty the next morning. Surely in an establishment of any size, it should be practical to ask the registering guest whether he intends to make an early start, and then offer the transients a place in the Quiet Wing; the slow movers, the salesmen, and the card players, rooms in another.
I am told that there is a motel in San Diego where one can have breakfast served in bed, and that is fine for those who don’t mind the crumbs. For myself, I am more fussy about partitions and closets with an ample supply of hangers, a place in the bathroom for drip-dry garments, enough floor space so that I am not always cracking my ankle on bed or chair, a bath rather than a shower, and a reading light to put me to sleep.
GEORGIE TO BOWSER
Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., was the most audacious and provocative field officer the American Army has produced since Stonewall Jackson. He was sentimental and as profane as Mark Twain; he wrote graphic letters and nearbeer Kipling verse; he was a believer in reincarnation, and was sure that in earlier centuries he had fought where he was now fighting in Europe; he was a dead shot and as vain as a peacock; he was the first American officer to represent this country in the military pentathlon in the Olympic Games of 1912 (he placed fourth), and when downgraded in Hawaii in the 1920s and disgusted with our disarmament program, he practiced before a mirror building up his “war face”; finally, of all the Allied officers in the Second World War, he was the most feared and respected by the Germans and the Russians.
General Patton’s unexpurgated diaries and letters, carefully guarded by the family, will not be published until his contemporaries are dead. There was no love lost between Eisenhower and himself, and one assumes that in his diaries Patton will demonstrate his claim that if he had been unchecked, he could have brought the war in Europe to a far speedier conclusion. The two best books about Patton are Drive, the intimate, affectionate day-to-day picture of the General by his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Codman, and, for its military competence, Patton and His Third Army by Colonel Brenton G. Wallace. There are others the future biographer will draw on and the most recent, BEFORE THE COLORS FADE by FRED AYER, JR. (Houghton Mifflin, $6,00), a family close-up of Georgie Patton recorded by his favorite nephew, whom he nicknamed “Bowser.” Here is George S. Patton as he was at the family dinner table, in the hunting field, and in full blasphemy on a polo pony; here he is as a yachtsman sailing across the Pacific by dead reckoning; here is his unalterable belief in his destiny (“It is my destiny to lead the biggest army ever assembled”); and here he is with his irascible rudeness as he marked time during the “Long Armistice.” A Colonel and Acting Brigadier in 1918, who was severely wounded in the Argonne, Patton had to contain himself in garrison life for twenty-one years before his full rank was restored.
Mr. Ayer adds up the family memorabilia in an attractive way, and he does not let his hero worship blind him to his uncle’s peculiarities. Patton, as he shows us, could be brutally rude even to his sisters, but he had other qualities — and a wife — which soon led to forgiveness. He was a student of military history endowed with extraordinary foresight: his detailed projection which he made in 1937 of how the Japs could make a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was of course pigeonholed by his incredulous superiors, but it was accurate. Like every brave man in line of fire, he was superstitious, and he quoted the story General Allenby had told him that luck “is like a sum of gold . . . which must be spent.” He was easily moved to tears, and his tribute to his aide Dick Jensen, who was killed, is touching. His two deepest ties were to his wife, Beatrice, and to his brother-in-law Fred Ayer, Sr., and the devotion of these three provides the finest pages in his nephew’s book.
To readers from ten to ninety The Incredible Journey by SHEILA BURNFORD opened up a vista on the North and developed a relationship between a golden retriever, a bull terrier, and a Siamese cat so plausible and touching that her book, which had been declined by the first publishers to whom it was shown and was eventually sponsored by the Atlantic, became one of the most widely and affectionately read of any in this decade. Mrs. Burnford writes about nature with grace and insight. She spent her girlhood in the Western Highlands of Scotland and now lives with her husband and three children in Northwest Ontario, snowbound for six months of each year but never inhibited in her love for and discoveries in the natural world.
Her new book, THE FIELDS OF NOON (AtlanticLittle, Brown, $4.50), is a selection of her personal adventures. They establish at once, as good essays should, a degree of trust, of intimacy between the writer and the reader, and an expectation for the self-reliance, the quiet humor, and the lively sense of observation so characteristic of this attractive woman. Not since Anne Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea have I read essays so swift in transporting one to a world of privacy and perception.
Mrs. Burnford has the hardihood of her Scottish forebears, and the walking which she did as a girl in gumboots throughout the Highlands was a sturdy preparation for what she was later to do in the Black Forest, the High Pyrenees, and the Dinaric Alps of Yugoslavia — and for what she does today, at twenty degrees below zero, in moosehide moccasins made by the Swampy Crees of northern Saskatchewan, the finest walking boots in the world she declares, even though her family complains about their “kippery” smell when she wears them in the house. Many of her expeditions are made in company with her friend Susan, whose children, like Sheila’s, have reached an age which gives mothers more freedom. Susan is a painter whose eye as a professional has aptitude for variations in color and texture, very helpful in their quest for mushrooms in the deep bush. Both are gounnet-voyageurs, and the mushroom yields which they slice and sauté at day’s end are varied and delectable.
They do their hunting in the company of Raimie, Mrs. Burnford’s aging golden retriever, who has been their “bear-scare” for years, and who also has a wonderfully acute nose for mushrooms, though he is likely to paw or sit on a succulent specimen. Whether she is opening a cabin on the day the ice is going out of the lake, or responding to her Scottish-inherited inclinations to fish, or sounding her duck calls with her rubber decoys off in a slough by herself, Mrs. Burnford and her shadow, Raimie, transport us to a Canadian experience which is almost as much fun to read about as it was to live.
THE SPIRIT TAKES WINGS
In any writing about race relations the quality most difficult of achievement is that of balance. In a book like Native Son by Richard Wright, the overload of dark hatred and despair threw everything out of proportion; even the author’s relations to his own family were distorted. But in the novels of Alan Paton or the short stories of Nadine Gordimer, which are no less deeply felt, there is balance and a far clearer sense of reality, because in each case the writer, however indignant, has set himself to interpret the two sides, the white and the black. Only the best are capable of striking this balance when writing about the peoples of Africa, and MARGARET LAURENCE is one of the best.
A Canadian writer, born in Manitoba in 1926, she went with her civil-engineer husband to live in Somaliland, where she studied the language and began translating Somali folktales and poetry. Then they moved, and in This Side Jordan, her first novel, she wrote of the emergence of Ghana. Now, in THE TOMMOROW-TAMER (Knopf, $4.95), Mrs. Laurence has brought together ten short stories, stories of the West Africa she has seen in that time of transition when the white authority was leaving and the native spirit was struggling against the old superstitions and toward a new and risky freedom. In the title story she tells of how a bridge was built at the ferry village of Owurasu, of how the river god was propitiated, and of how Kofi, the leader of the young men, is sent to sample the work and to learn what the bridge with its humming cables might portend for the future. Kofi’s transformation as a mechanic’s helper striding lightly over the catwalk is the story, but in its telling, through a dozen deft disclosures, we have come to know the communal life and the old ways that Kofi must give up in his new gamble.
It is Mrs. Laurence’s intent not to take sides, and she can pity even when she does not like. So, in “The Drummer of All the World” we see an idol-breaker of the old school, a missionary driving himself and his wife to distraction. But we see him through the eyes of his skeptical son and not without compassion. There is comedy, bizarre and tender, as in “The Perfume Sea” with its light-touched account of Mr. Archipelago, the hairdresser, and of how he and his assistant, Doree, survive after the European ladies have left. And in stories like “The Merchant of Heaven” or “The Pure Diamond Man” the buoyancy and the gratification come not from any victory of one side over the other, but from the realization that when old chains and old arrogancies have been broken, the spirit takes wings.
NEW WIND IN A DRY LAND (Knopf, $5.95) is Mrs. Laurence’s account of her life in Somaliland. Her husband’s assignment was to direct the building of a series of dams that would provide water during the terrible months of drought that periodically struck Somaliland, killing stock and the nomadic, desert-dwelling Somalis in droves. Inevitably, there were collisions between the modern machines and the proud, tough tribesmen.
Mrs. Laurence’s book about the whole enterprise includes a number of matters that have become standard in books about Africa: scorn of the pukka sahib types, rough journeys, strange wildlife, misunderstandings with Africans, consciousness of the European’s ignorance in the face of a vast, unfamiliar, intricate tribal world. I do not mean that Mrs. Laurence’s story is derivative or commonplace. She lived in a most stimulating and unusual region, and she writes about it extremely well, for she is a good observer who contrived to remain sympathetic in a climate designed to sour the disposition of an angel.