Up Eel River. By Margaret Montague. New York: Macmillan Company. $2.50.
Folk lore in America is all too thinly spread. Here is a book that may go on the same shelf with “Uncle Remus” and a very few others—Margaret Montague’s “Up Eel River.” There is Uncle Remus with the little boy to whom he tells his tales of the creatures who talk and consort and adventure together in a great open of wood and field and briar patch, and who visit “Miss Meadows an’ de gals,” who are pure nature spirits, these last belonging somewhere in the train of Demeter. And there is Tony Beaver with his crew in his lumber camp up Eel River, and to get to that place you have to go from Somewhere to Nowhere, and Tony Beaver sends his path to fetch you in, and there begins the cosmic drollery. That path! “It isn’t stuck down to the earth like most trails but is kinder loose and free.” And by it, in you go to the tall timber, the rich, laughing, big, humourous, resinous, resonant tall timber!
The world has forgotten about nature spirits. It would enrich itself if it would remember them a little more.
Tony Beaver is, perhaps, a cousin of Pan; offspring of an American, backwoods, offshoot of that Family.
Tony Beaver has a yoke of steers, and these oxen are to be evened with the Ram of Derby.
But for the yoke of steers, go up Eel River.
The horns that grew on its head, sir,
They grew up to the moon.
A man went up in December,
And didn’t come down till June!
And if you don’t believe me,
Or think I tell a lie.
Why, just go down to Darby,
And see as well as I!
Tony Beaver hitches them to the wheels of time and pulls down a to-morrow, “jest the prettiest little to-morrer a person ever did see,” for the little fellow who sits on his shoulder. . .
Read about it. It will repay you. And about Tony and his men riding down Eel River on the seeds of the giant melon (Pure Jack and the Beanstalk stuff, this!), and about the Big Music, and the World’s Funny Bone, and the trick for telling the truth from the other thing, and the sugar tree that was a bleeder, and the woman “from Maine or Spain, I fergit which state it was,” who rebuked Tony Beaver and told him he didn’t own the earth. Whereupon,
He stood up—and he stood up!—and he stood up! And every time he done it he growed taller and taller. The furst time his head went level with the white oak trees; the second time it was over the top of the ridge; and the third time it went bang into the sky.
“O my lands!” the woman says, and she jumps up right quick out’n her cheer, and looks about her powerful oneasy. And well she might, for when she looked she was all alone up a faraway holler in the woods. There wa’n’t any Tony Beaver, there wa’n’t any lumber camp, there wa’n’t any hands no more. And Eel River itself had done went in the ground. Looked like what had been Tony wasn’t nothing but a gray cliff of rocks hanging outer the ridge: what had been the lumber camp was the mountain itself: and what had been the hands standing round, laffing and whispering together, was jest the hickory and white oak saplings with the wind blowing through they leaves.
(Where we all went to, stranger, I can’t tell you-all, for it’s the truth, I jest don’t know.)
Well, sirs! It cert’nly did come sudden to that woman to find herself out all alone in them far-away woods, with nothing but the wind blowing through them saplings what jest a minute back had been a husky parcel of men folks. . . .
Well, that fetched him, and there he was ergin—there was Tony looking at her, there was all us hands ergin, and the lumber camp and Eel River, and there was even the very cheer she’d been a-setting in.
My Golly, but the woman was glad to be back from that wide empty place. . . .
“I don’t own the earth,” says Tony. “The earth owns me!’
Yes, Tony Beaver—who is also Paul Bunyan—and the Eel River crew, and the little fellow and the critters of sorts, they belong! Put them on the shelf that ought to be longer with indigenous matters of this sort.
Comparable to the gulf Tony, Beaver made in the road of the world by dragging out a to-morrow, is the gulf between the Indian and his folk tales and the America of today. We haven’t the Indian lodge packed with stories. We haven’t their elemental beings. Nor have we those of our own ancestral lands. They didn’t migrate with us. The consequence is a barren feeling. We have the tremendous, the marvellous country; there is nothing like it; verily our tall timber is the tallest timber. But its inmates in this sort are still alien to us, or we to them. And we haven’t our legendary beings from home in Europe. They stayed with the soil. We haven’t the aboriginal figures; not those the red man had. We haven’t yet made — or perhaps “discovered” is the better word—the beings who belong to this earth, water, air and fire of ours, and to our history here, and to us.
So there should be nothing more welcome to the forming American spirit than genuine contribution or discovery in this kind.
“Up Eel River” is such a contribution or discovery.
Margaret Montague has a mystical and poetic spirit. It has shone forth in poems and stories and books of inner experience. In this volume it all becomes a little cosmic. A big, broadly humourous, aromatic and generous cosmos in which there is room for very much besides all that is thought out in two-by-four geometries. More power to her elbow! There is room for another volume about Tony Beaver and Eel River.