In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1837, Pete Beatty’s “Cuyahoga” (Scribner, 2020) introduces Big Son, a pioneering American spirit among the likes of Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone. Big Son, his “shoulders wide as ox yokes” and his “muscles curlicued like rich man’s furniture,” carries a woman, child, and house cat out of a roaring fire, saving them as one of his frequently performed feats around Ohio City. This folk hero appears larger than life, which he is – after being kicked in the head by a horse and momentarily dying, Big comes back from the dead with abilities to perform superhuman tasks regularly throughout his Midwestern town.
Big Son’s tall tales are narrated by his brother Medium Son, also known as Meed, whose distinct style is as entertaining as it is unreliable. Meed explains: “Big Son has rastled rivers and lakes and rescued women in woe. Met the devil twice and whipped him three times. Ate panther fricassee for breakfast and tiger steaks at supper. Taught wolves how to wail and put a face on the moon with a rusty musket. Big Son has done more feats than you have brains to hold etc.”
While Big Son’s tales are great and many, his woes pile just as high. Big helped to settle Ohio City, located just on the other side of the Cuyahoga River from Cleveland, by clearing a forest of trees in two days’ time, then he wrestled Lake Erie into submission. Performing feats day in and day out for nothing more than a pat on the back, Big’s troubles began when the woman he wants to marry rejects him. In an attempt to impress her, Big Son begins looking for ways to make money, but feat-performing spirits are not really the type to make a regular living. As tensions rise between Ohio City and Cleveland, the townsfolk appreciate Big’s status as the resident spirit less and less.
Beatty’s debut novel magnificently calls back the larger-than-life folklore tales heard regularly when growing up in the United States, while also telling a unique and original story. The narrative voice of Meed is hilarious, devious, and completely unforgettable – this short novel is highly engrossing, while forcing you to slow down and take in each and every carefully crafted word.
Check out “Cuyahoga” at your closest Denver Public Library location or as an ebook or through denverlibrary.com.
Hannah Evans is the senior librarian at the Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library.