COWABUNGA! CONESTOGA? Not quite… Cuyahoga is a river flowing through northeast Ohio into Lake Erie. It gives its name to the county where the city of Cleveland is located. It’s also the name of a terrific novel by Pete Beatty that came out a couple years ago, and more recently in paperback. Cuyahoga is not naturist fiction, but it does add considerably to the topic of nudity in literature, in a way that is of interest to those of us who write about nudist or naturist settings.
You see, in addition to featuring a narrative voice that is so interesting, so well written, that reading it forces you to contemplate and reconsider all the inner workings of language and how we express things in English (breathless pant), the novel tells the story of an American tall tale hero, someone of the ilk of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, or Pecos Bill. His name is Big Son, or just “Big,” and he is, in some way, “a spirit of the times” made manifest. His “times” are the 1830s, in Ohio City, erstwhile rival to Cleveland, across the Cuyahoga River one from the other. His adventures are narrated by his younger brother Medium Son, or “Meed.”
The reader learns early on that Big has no problem shedding his clothes if they are getting in the way of his wonderworking. One of his first feats is the clearing of all the trees from the Ohio City side of the river in one night.
The trees gave my brother a thrashing and expected he would sleep politely. This faith were their undoing. […] All night he peeled and scotched and girdled, gathered up kindling. Just before the sun stirred from rest, he ran naked through the arbor and lit one hundred fires. (p. 15)
While nudity is not a theme in the novel, it is rather common, and even nonchalant, at least for brothers Big and Meed. Several references to Big’s casual state of undress exist in the plot, leading up to his final feat in which he swims up the Cuyahoga River racing his rival’s steamboat.
Fpprochk the pistol said by way of amen.
Straightaway Big stripped down to just his kerchief, setting his folded britches on a stone. He walked into the water until the river reached his chin, and took up long loping slaps. (p. 249)
Does Big win? How is the race linked to the fate of Ohio City? The answers make for a very entertaining read. Meanwhile, younger brother Meed attempts his own feat – to drive away the “night pigs” – and things don’t quite turn out as he planned. He winds up filthy.
My soiled clothes were chilling me and I shed them. There were no one to mind my jaybirding, and the air were a vigorous refreshment. (p. 149)
A vigorous refreshment indeed, we naturists nod and agree. Meed “jaybirds” calmly through the city in the early morning, down to the river to wash, where a boat is unloading. Among the passengers disembarking, he is surprised to see his sister.
My joy at Chloe’s return caused me to forget that I were entirely naked. I called out a hulloa and she looked right at me.
MEED! Turning sideways to escape my shame. There were rebuke in her eyes but half a grin on her lips too. How the fashion has changed since I’ve been gone.
I were struck for manners so I only put hands over my nuptial bits for etiquette. (p. 151)
Another character, Dog, strips down while blowing up a bridge… In short, there is a rather obvious association throughout the plot between nudity and phenomenal undertakings. In this novel’s setting, nudity may evoke “shame” and euphemisms like “nuptial bits,” but it seems to be more easily tolerated. That tolerance allows for the need to get naked to perform great deeds to seem not only more plausible, but entirely natural. It’s a notion akin to the idea of nudity as a superpower, a trope I explored in a post from last year with several examples from naturist fiction. Getting naked in order to perform acts of derring-do is not exactly a way to #normalizenaturism, but it does leave the not-yet-nudist to wonder if perhaps that mundane task they are undertaking (cooking, cleaning, writing, etc.) might come out better naked, too – better, or enhanced, or in some way more enjoyable.
Cuyahoga is a terrific book, very immersive and inventive, an imaginative story that makes you think. The wondrous expressions that the narrative voice creates are a joy to contemplate. And the tall tale characters streaking around performing incredible feats? They do indeed make it an even more enjoyable read.