Saturday, 21 May 2016

Wolf, the Memoirs of a Cave-Dweller by Peter B. McCord (1908)

Peter B. McCord was a watercolourist and newspaper illustrator and a close friend of Theodore Dreiser who died shortly before Wolf, the Memoirs of a Cave-Dweller, his only published book as far as I can tell, could be released. When McCord died of pneumonia he was only thirty eight years old, right when his talent appears to have become recognised. As consequence I couldn't find a photo of his, and so I added as heading to this review one of his own illustrations he drew for the book.

I am rather inclined to almost doubt that McCord never wrote anything before Wolf, as the strength of the book, though obscure it may be nowadays, strikes me as not at all what one would expect from someone publishing for the first time. McCord's prose does not have any of the clumsiness one would expect and even forgive a first-time author to exhibit. Not only that but both halves of the book are written competently, the first part not being a mere clumsy segue into the second.

The first part deals with the family history of the fictional author/presenter of the second part which is the "meat" of the book, including the coming and settling down of his grandparents in a remote and but sparsely settled area of the rugged frontier of the United States in the late years of the first half of the 19th century. The author's grandfather meets and befriends a Jesuit priest who, after many years of their acquaitance, when death is at his door, bestows into their keeping a mysterious packet which he means to give to his nephew Honoré, and assures that that though to find Honoré the whole world would doubtless need be searched, he will come to claim his inheritance, as he "always knew" the priest "meant it all for him". After he dies, many many years pass until eventually the author's grandmother grants him the package on her deathbed, still unopened, bidding him to wait for several months until he opens it to have a taste of what it felt to keep it sealed for fifty years. Inside, the author discovers a letter from the Jesuit meant for his nephew, and a bundle of manuscript which deals with a translated account of a prehistoric tribesman, who is apparently from a tribe linking the Chinese and Native Americans.

The second part deals in an autobiographical way with the life and trials of Wolf, a member of an unnamed tribe. Now Wolf does not really know the concept of shame, and the book does shy away from romanticising life among the primitive tribes, instead showing it as sometimes a very rough, bloody business where the strong man of the tribe can do as he will and no one really cares to differ, but eventually old age claims him and when he no longer has power in the tribe he writes the record of his life, deeds and the things he had seen and learned, for the sake of the tribe.

The book is written in a very brisk way with no deep effort at moralising, though one could maybe infer a moral from the proceedings if one so wishes, and the events which are narrated are all exciting or interesting and move the plot along nicely. The only minor point to make is that based on the Jesuit's comments in the first part, you would assume he was reffering to the map to some hidden treasure by some ancient American civilisation, which may not be prefferable to what we get but it is a bit misleading. And also the mystery of what happened to Honoré and what he was hiding from for so many years that his uncle never could catch his trail is really left up in the air and it does make you wonder. Still, the book stands on it's own two legs and it is trully a shame that McCord passed away so early and we were denied any more of his fine prose.

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