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Pete Beatty Tells Tall Tales In ‘Cuyahoga’

"Cuyahoga" is Pete Beatty's debut novel. [Pete Beatty]
"Cuyahoga" is Pete Beatty's debut novel.

The story of “Big Son,” a mythical young man who could knock down trees, wrestle bears and eat more than one thousand pancakes, might never have been told if Pete Beatty had found more documentation about the bridge war between Ohio City and Cleveland in the 1830s.  

Beatty had set out to write historical non-fiction about the dispute over where to put bridges over the Cuyahoga River, but he came up short in his research of history.

“The more time I spent with it, the more I realized I could just write my own version of it,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that happen in it that are not historical or just not actually plausible.”

The Berea native developed an affinity for tall tales at an early age, having grown up watching replays of Disney’s “Davy Crockett.”

“My sort of young, rational brain really had a lot of fun and … kind of wrestled with the surreality of tall tales,” he said.

Later as a youth, he also saw how beloved characters, like Fess Parker, the actor who played Crockett, could go on to push commercial products or services.

“I sort of started to piece together some things about, like, maybe people tell tall tales for a reason, like maybe they're selling something or selling an idea of what or how people are supposed to feel about something," he said. "And that kind of pushed me.”

Two brothers are at the heart of Beatty’s debut novel, “Cuyahoga,” the legendary “Big Son” and his younger brother, “Medium Son,” also the story’s narrator. They live on the Ohio City side of the Cuyahoga River, and the bridges consume their energies as well as those of others in the book.

While set in Northeast Ohio, the story of Cleveland and its conflicts “echoes in a lot of other places,” Beatty said. So can the stories of the charcters. 

“Part of what I think maybe tall tales or heroes/heroines can do or have done in the past, they have a sort of social function of giving us something to agree on or giving us some context, mutually agreed upon contexts where we can communicate,” Beatty said.

"Cuyahoga" is published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Beatty lives in Alabama and works for the University of Alabama Press. 

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.