Although Seven Rivers West is a blend of genres and styles, one of its most remarkable features is the evenness of the blend. The style does not lurch from one mode to another but maintains an even amalgam of humor, fantasy, and alert observation. The mixture gives rise to these general questions: What is the function and purpose of fiction? Is there a well-defined demarcation between fiction and nonfiction? Is the purpose of fiction to provide more fantasy—or entertainment—than nonfiction, and is its function to be selective, emphasizing some types of psychological motivation and omitting others, providing characters who are more “flat” than those in real life? Edward Hoagland’s novel is of special interest because he has written both fiction and nonfiction. He has published four novels, including Cat Man (1956), two serious travel books about Africa and British Columbia, and several collections of essays; Hoagland is amply experienced in both genres. In Seven Rivers West, he tries to blend the virtues of both into a single, humorous genre and style.
Hoagland largely succeeds. This is true because his novel is a historical reconstruction of another century, a period in time that has become a “fiction” from the point of view of the 1980’s. The past, it has been said, is a foreign country—and Seven Rivers West is an attempt to reconstruct the 1880’s by an act of the imagination. To escape from the present and enter into the minds, motivations, and mythic expectations of people who lived then might well require a strategy of “fiction.” Some historians may agree. In a foreign country there is a different language, different usages, modes of thought, and feeling—the novelist can help to render these by employing the fictional resources of immediacy, imaginative sympathy, psychological insight, and devices of perspective and verbal style. The choice of the 1880’s and the frontier is especially suited to Hoagland’s blend of fiction and nonfiction because it was a uniquely fiction- and fantasy-ridden time. The frontier was saturated with subjective desire: of gold bugs, speculators, dreamers, “escapists,” former prisoners, and outlaws—in short a mixture of psychological types whose minds entertained an astonishing variety of fantasies and fictions.
The main action of the book is the quest for fortune by the principal characters. This coincides with what might be called a travelogue. Once the members of the group have met and decided to join forces at the frontier town and railhead called Horse Swim, they set out together for the mountains and Indian country. Their journey upriver takes them into unknown terrain, over the intercontinental divide, and into the Pacific watershed. The trip provides a large part of the excitement of the book, and what they see is a subtle mix of the incredible and the possible. The place-names are invented. The town of Horse Swim is on the east side of the “Rockies.” As the group set out, they pass up the Margaret River, named after the Indian woman Margaret who accompanies them, through the Mutton Hills, and across the Kluatantan Territory. The rivers they ford are the Ompompanoosuc (they call it the Ompom for short), the Memphramagog, the Eejookgook, and the Obo. Some of Hoagland’s names recall place-names in British Columbia or Washington State, such as the Tlickitats (an Indian tribe on the Columbia River was known as the Klickitats) and the Hanaimo River (Nanaimo on Vancouver Island). The name Canada is never mentioned, but the basis for the book’s geography is a mixture of American and Canadian frontiers.
There are two main reasons for Hoagland’s imaginary geography, and there are also other advantages in not pinning down the place-names on a geographical map. First, in the 1880’s the map was still largely uncharted, the West as much a product of rumors and imaginings as of objective observations. This is a feature of the American West and America itself that goes back to the earliest explorers; examples are explorer-adventures such as Baron de Lahontan and Louis Hennepin, whose fictions dominated French and American cartography almost as late as the end of the eighteenth century. A second reason for the imaginary geography is that it permits condensation. The raw frontier town of Horse Swim is a composite of many such towns that existed throughout the United States and Canada; it is many nineteenth century frontier towns in one. They were improvised for the flimsiest of reasons—largely speculative—and often abandoned as quickly as they were founded. The inhabitants of Horse Swim are a picturesque mixture of people from all over the world: Easterners, Southerners and Texans, single men and families, outlaws, hucksters, preachers, speculators, foreigners, and half-breeds. If they have a common denominator it is their rootlessness. Or, as Hoagland mentions in the novel, there are two main groups: those who intend eventually to return to where they came from, and those whose centrifugal movement could take them any place, halfway around the world to China or further still.
Seven Rivers West is provided with a map at the beginning, and the place-names are Hoagland’s. As with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the author is “proprietor.” Faulkner’s map was somewhat more specific, and he...
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