Seven Rivers West

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2192

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...

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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 claimed that his county was in Mississippi; Hoagland’s frontier cannot be precisely located in a single state or even country. It becomes clear to those who know Hoagland’s previous work that he evokes some of the places described in his book Notes from the Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia (1969). This is entirely legitimate: The histories of the Canadian West and the American West are two branches of the same tree and are often indistinguishable. Although there were differences, many of these are a result of anachronistic hindsight.

Hoagland’s intention is to seize the main features of the Western experience and to parody it. The parody, however, is never biting; it is a gentle, humorous parody inclining toward sly fun and fantasy rather than toward indignation or mordant analysis. Some of the characters are flat, sketched in very broad strokes. The Indian woman named Margaret is a purely fictional construct, and Hoagland wastes little time in making her believable as an Indian woman. She is cosmetic fluff, perhaps there because the whites in the party—Cecil and Sutton—need her. Her speech has no Indian elements whatsoever. When a member of the group, one-armed Roy, drowns while crossing a treacherous river, Margaret remarks, “There ain’t no real nice place for graves . . . but we have to dress the poor tyke. Not that he’s going to feel the difference.” Cecil is in need of a cooperative, sensual woman because of his failed marriage and frigid wife left behind in Massachusetts; so Hoagland provides him with Margaret, of Margaret River fame. The willing Indian woman was a familiar figure in the nineteenth and twentieth century literature of the West. Margaret is a parody, for example, of Teal-Eye in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky (1947). The parody is literary as well as historical.

What are the motivations of the group’s members? The reader must not expect exact historical reconstruction. If the characters seek their fortune, they also seem to have a simple desire for amusement. Hoagland is content to take his own characters with a grain of salt, to sit back and observe his creations with an arch smile. Cecil and Sutton are as much in pursuit of women—any woman—as of gold or material gain, and a third major character, Charley Biskner the prospector, has a reputation among the Indians as a “squaw man.” Though in quest of wealth they are far from single-minded or obsessive in their quest, and they are easily sidetracked. They are a far cry from most forty-niners or sourdoughs in historical textbooks and records, and this turns out to be a major reason for their attractiveness. The men are actually womanizers who have strayed to the frontier, and Margaret, in turn, likes men, as does another Indian woman, Lizzie, who has had almost no experience with whites. Cecil is looking for grizzly bear cubs he could bring back with him to New England and show in a circus; even more important, he is searching for a “Bigfoot” that he could ship back to the East and exhibit either in a circus or in his own one-man show; this would satisfy all of his desires and cap his career as a vaudeville performer. Sutton also has a background in vaudeville; his most dramatic stunt, to impress whites and Indians alike, is to dive from a great height into a very small container of water or shallow creek pool.

As the novel proceeds, and as the group members travel further into the wilderness and high mountains, the themes of illusion and reality come increasingly to the fore. The environment becomes more dangerous. The Indians they meet are threatening, and wild animals such as grizzlies, mountain lions, and wolves become an active presence at each camp, attacking their horses, mules, and dogs. The rivers, too, are a constant source of danger, both powerful and unpredictable. Despite this danger Cecil’s interest in grizzlies and Bigfoot (at first thought to be like a wolverine) is only whetted. At one point he is attacked by a grizzly and takes refuge in a beaver house in a lake. Yet at no point is he tempted to turn back. This mixture of threat and illusion is sustained by Hoagland’s style and his unflagging sense of humor. The style, always alert and lively, contributes to the rapid pace of the narration, supplying the reader with constant surprises and unexpected observations. Describing the birds on the banks of the Memphramagog River, Hoagland notes:A kingfisher dashed out in pursuit of a fish hawk and actually rode on its neck for a hundred yards, sitting like a broncobuster, while underneath their conjoined, monstrous shadow a groundhog on the riverbank took such fright it bumped its head and stunned itself in diving for its den. White Eye [a dog] grabbed the creature to lunch on.

Although fantasy is a prominent ingredient of both plot and style, the book never dissolves into pure subjectivity or allegory. The style is constantly mixed.

Although the reader might think the pursuit of a Bigfoot is a “corny” theme, it is handled discreetly and resourcefully. A Bigfoot does appear when the group—much diminished—reaches the furthest, most isolated primitive terrain not far from the continental divide on the Eejookgook River. Catching the animal is out of the question; it is far too strong and agile. Although it appears to be a cross between a grizzly, a gorilla, and a mountain goat, it has come to mean much more than that, embodying many of man’s own fears of other men as well as Cecil’s fantasies and experiences which he projects upon it. Cecil manages to “talk” or communicate with it in a very primitive fashion. In an attempt to interest it and establish a relationship with it, Sutton tries to perform his high-diving vaudeville act from a cliff into a mountain pool with the Bigfoot as spectator. “’Well,’ Sutton muses, ’It’ll just be a free show then. Bringin’ culture to the Eejookgook.’” The jump, however, misfires, Sutton strikes a rock, and shortly afterward dies. The Bigfoot disappears.

This is not the end of Bigfoot—there are others—or of the unexpected, fantastic nature of the wilderness and man’s reaction to it. To the very end of the novel there is suspense as to where reality ends and fantasy begins (or ends). The remaining two members of the group are almost destroyed by Indians and wild animals in the steep-walled canyon that confines them. Without mules, guns, or ammunition, floating on a raft, “Cecil and Margaret saw three Bigfoots as they drifted—separate thin-haired, long-haired, box-nosed individuals placidly beachcombing miles apart. Like most of the grizzlies, they pretended not to notice the raft slowly hurtling by.” The Bigfoot tends to merge with the environment. There is no such thing, yet this creature is everywhere. Just as other animals like the moose tend to be accompanied, not far away, by a skinny wolf looking for a chance to attack when its guard is down, the Bigfoot is a mixture of fear and anticipation, of subjectivity and objectivity.

At the novel’s conclusion the group meets a railroad crew in the valley of the Obo River which flows to the Pacific. Some Indians work for the crew; one greets them, saying, “Mohawk . . . from Buffalo.” He adds, “You wanna work? A guy drowned. You talk to the Major.” When Cecil and Margaret recount their adventures in the wilderness, another crew member points out a huge shape nearby under the surface of the river, “a ridge-backed slaty body three times as long as a man’s and bulkier than any grizzly bear’s . . . like a gigantic barrel”—perhaps some kind of fish. Cecil and Margaret proceed to speculate on catching the creature, hollowing it out, drying and stuffing it, then selling it to P. T. Barnum for money.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

Best Sellers. XLVI, December, 1986, p. 328.

Booklist. LXXXII, July, 1986, p. 1562.

Chicago Tribune. September 17, 1986, V, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, July 15, 1986, p. 1049.

Library Journal. CXI, August, 1986, p. 170.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, September 21, 1986, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, August 1, 1986, p. 68.

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