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History as myth in ‘Foxey Brown’

October 3, 2012
By ROGER MITCHELL - Special to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Charles Yaple has written an unusual story in "Foxey Brown: A Historical Novel," and done it in an unusual way.

While this is a book about the Adirondacks, its central character came to the region not for its beauties but to escape the law.

An outdoor educator who once taught at SUNY Cortland, Yaple and his brother decided one year to kayak (his word was "explore") the Fall Stream area near Piseco in the southern Adirondacks. They found it undramatic but remote and peaceful, but noticed that their map described part of the area as the "Foxey Brown Hermitage."

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Yaple was immediately snared by the need to find out who this Foxey Brown was and why a piece of the Adirondacks had been given his name.

In quick outline, Foxey Brown was born in Maine as David Brennan, moved to Boston in his young years, and got into a bar fight there in which he hit a man so hard with a pool cue he thought he'd killed him. Thinking he would hang for murder, Brennan fled to the southern Adirondacks, changing his name to Brown.

Fearing discovery, he moved out into the woods, squatted on an old camp site and became, in Yaple's reconstruction of him, one of the Adirondacks' most typical heroes, a hermit, complete with a growly, antisocial nature meant to keep curious strangers away.

It worked, and Foxey, as he came to be known, developed into so skilled a woodsman he eventually had clients seeking him out, most of whom he turned away, but not Carlton Banker, superintendent of a local railroad.

Foxey and Banker developed a long, close friendship over years, which ended in 1916 when Banker disappeared one day in the woods. His remains were not found for six years later, and local gossip tended to blame Brown.

Murphy, it turned out, had not died that night in Boston, so Brown/Brennan later returned to Maine where he died.

This whole tale hangs by the slightest threads, as Yaple happily admits. Three or four images of the man, a newspaper article or two, plus the remains of his squatter's farm are all that is left of David Brennan's invented life.

Here was a real man whom Yaple took impressive license with to construct a whole character, even letting Brennan narrate the entire thing. Though called a novel, it more resembles a memoir, and the liberties taken by Yaple make Brennan into an almost mythic figure, someone who rather improbably touched or was touched by major events and figures in the history of his years, from the hermit French Louie to Theodore Roosevelt, from the great fires of 1903 and 1908 to the famous blizzard of March 1916.

Yaple has Brown work briefly in the woods as a logger, as well, thus giving us a good portrait of the rigors of that early industry.

All in all, it is a portrait of the Adirondacks as it changed from an unregulated wilderness to a place in need of rescue from the ravages of free use and misuse of its mineral and natural abundance, and but for lack of a love interest, has all the power and promise of an opera. Perhaps Yaple should take an additional liberty.


Roger Mitchell is the author of "Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems" (AuSable Press, 2008) and lives in Jay.


This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.



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