Thursday, February 22, 2024

A Tale of Two Cities (and One River): Cuyahoga dramatizes forgotten “Bridge War”

Judging by the tall tales that have been passed down, the United States of the 19th century was filled with heroes like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed and, of course, Ohio’s own Big Son.

Oh, you’re not familiar with Big Son? The brass-haired, red kerchief-wearing champion who out-swam a steamboat, wrestled Lake Erie to a standstill and single-handedly cleared the forest east of the Cuyahoga River, building Ohio City from its remains?

Well, that’s because Big Son is an invention of author Pete Beatty. The character is the focus of Beatty’s debut novel Cuyahoga, which tells of Big Son’s many feats and follies and his place in the his-torical conflict between the then-young Cleveland and its one-time cross-river rival.

“In the spring and summer of 2015, I was living in Cleveland, and thinking about writing a nonfi ction essay about the actual ‘Bridge War’ of the 1830s between Cleveland and Ohio City, but there wasn’t much documentation,” Beatty, an Ohio native, said from his current home in Alabama.

The “war” was actually just a lot of bad feelings that climaxed in a bloody 1836 riot. When Cleveland built the first permanent bridge over the crooked river, it diverted the majority of commerce away from Ohio City, so much so that Cleveland eventually absorbed Ohio City, which is now a neighborhood of Cleveland.

Relationships with heroes
As Beatty was considering that semi-forgotten bit of state history in 2015, LeBron James announced he would be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, inspiring a great deal of celebration, “just six years after people were cursing his name and burning his jerseys,” Beatty said. “That got me thinking about the complicated and high-voltage relationships we have with heroes. So I decided to make up a hero of my own.”

Big Son’s story is told to us by his little brother Medium “Meed” Son, whose very name and occupation of writing about his more-famous brother gives one a sense of how deep a shadow he lives in. Meed’s voice is full of colorful language, funny aphorisms and witty observations, as he rollickingly records not only his brother’s doings, but Ohio City’s side of the war. This includes attempts by the foul-mouthed, sour-tempered August “Dog” Dogstadter to blow up Cleveland’s bridge. Repeatedly.

Tall tales today
For the creation of Big Son, and the other spirits who he crosses paths with, Beatty took inspiration from the Davy Crockett almanacs. Meed meditates quite a bit on the nature of spirits. Beatty can too. “I think the space between American heroes in the 19th and 21st centuries is narrower than we realize sometimes,” Beatty says. “I suspect audiences in the 1800s understood that tall tales weren’t ‘true,’ the same way we understand pro wrestling is fake, or that reality TV is staged.

“We might not swap stories about how LeBron James or Ruth Bader Ginsburg hung on the moon and howled with wolves, but we do invest our cultural heroes with a near-divine power, by wearing their likeness and following their every move. We still need big people to tell big stories, even if the modern style of storytelling is more complicated.”

That complexity is on full display in Beatty’s Cuyahoga, a big story about a person so big, he answers to the adjective as his first name.

Cuyahoga 272 p. Hardcover: $19.96, Kindle $11.99. Also available as an audiobook. 

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