BOOK REVIEW

“In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch” by John Zada. Atlantic Monthly. 306 pp. $26. Review provided by The Washington Post.

There is a certain kind of “in search of” book in which the outcome is foreordained. Failure books, I call them. The writer will inevitably fail to find the Loch Ness monster or the lost city of Atlantis or true love in an Italian seaside town. The reader knows this. The writer knows the reader knows this. Yet they conspire to ignore this inconvenient truth and enjoy the ride.

John Zada’s “In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch” falls squarely into this category. From the first page, we know that Zada, a Canadian writer, won’t find his Sasquatch, the half-man, half-ape said to roam the wilderness. If he had, surely the book would sport a more congratulatory title, like “How I Found Sasquatch!” or “Big Foot Exposed!”

This failure book, though, is no failure. Zada is too good a writer to pen anything as trite as “the journey is the destination,” but that is clearly the case here. We happily follow him as he scours Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, a wild and remote place some call the Noble Beyond, for signs of Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, as the mythical creature is also known.

Books on supernatural phenomena typically steer one of two courses: tabloid gullibility or mean-spirited debunkery. Zada deftly tightropes between the two. He treats the Bigfoot buffs he meets with an open-minded skepticism. He is one of them, having nursed a lifelong fascination with the creatures. (Yes, creatures, plural. Bigfoot is supposedly a lost species.) He wants to believe the stories are true (“I envision the creatures staring at me from every thicket and around every tree-lined corner”) but never mistakes his wanting for the truth.

Nearly everyone Zada meets has a story. Unexplained footprints. Strange sounds. Mysterious visages. Why, he wonders, “are many otherwise normal people from different walks of life seeing giant, hair-covered humanoids?” The sightings are remarkably similar, but of course that doesn’t prove anything. A persistent illusion is still an illusion.

Zada guides us through the world of Sasqualogy, a surprisingly robust field. We watch as these amateur sleuths strap cameras to tree trunks, examine footprints, track down leads – always coming up empty-handed. No Sasquatch specimen, living or dead, has ever been found. Many of those grainy photos and videos turned out to be hoaxes or optical illusions. What looks like an ape-man is probably a bear standing on its hind legs.

None of this deters the Sasqualogists. The more the scientific community dismisses their claims, the greater their conviction that they must be onto something. They have answers for every hole in their case. Why have the creatures never been photographed? Because they are “very smart animals” that just don’t want to be seen. The impulse to believe is strong, for the world is a more interesting place if populated by mythical creatures like Bigfoot or Nessie, the Loch Ness monster.

Residents of the Noble Beyond are understandably suspicious of outsiders like Zada, who is from Toronto. They suspect he’s a corporate spy working for the oil companies or even a terrorist. At the very least, they question his motives. “I hope you’re not here to make fun of us,” one local tells him. He is not, which makes this big-hearted book more satisfying than it might have otherwise been.

We learn a lot about these creatures that may or may not exist. We learn that some Sasquatches give off a wretched smell “likened to that of a wet dog that has rolled in its own excrement and rooted in garbage.” We learn that some emit piercing screams and others peer into people’s homes “like a peeping Tom.” We learn that, according to one legend, you see a Sasquatch only if you’re undergoing a personal crisis.

What saves the book from tabloid buffoonery is Zada’s skeptical eye and conversational style. The writing is fresh, as when he describes a wind with a “rhythmic push and pull that makes it sound as if it is speaking in tongues.” Less compelling are Zada’s countless trips to a lake or a river or a campsite. These “micro-journeys,” as he calls them, fall into a tiresome pattern. Meet characters at local watering hole. Gently inquire about Sasquatch sightings. Follow up leads. Reach dead end. Repeat.

“In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond” is at its best when Zada goes off on metaphysical riffs and epistemological explorations: Our eyes and our minds are imperfect instruments that process only a thin slice of reality.

Zada experiences this firsthand when he stumbles across what looks like a Sasquatch track but turns out to be different overlapping prints. “My mind had played a trick on me.” Another time, he “sees” a Sasquatch, “bulky, hairy, and muscular,” only to realize it is the light and landscape messing with his mind. No matter. “It may as well me be real,” he writes. “It doesn’t matter that it’s literally not.” Whether you agree with that assessment will determine the amount of pleasure you derive from this curious book.

“In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond” is not really about Sasquatch. It is about how we see what we want to see and don’t see what we’re not prepared to see. It is about our disconnect from our ancestral roots – our “wildness,” Thoreau called it. It is about the power of myth to give our lives meaning.

This is not a book for everyone. Subscribers to the Skeptical Inquirer look elsewhere. Ditto die-hard rationalists. Those willing to suspend their disbelief – to just shy of the breaking point – will be rewarded with a quirky and oddly captivating tale.

– Reviewed by Eric Weiner, who is the author of “The Geography of Genius: Lessons From the World’s Most Creative Places.”

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