Most of the lumberjack tales--tall to skyscraper high--around which this book is built point up the essential truths about logging the white pine forests: life was lawless, unwashed, and filled with mulishly hard work. It was also lousy--i.e., covered with lice. Wells has combed the great north woods of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota for these 19th-century histories of indomitable Bunyanesque shantyboys (their name before the 1870s) against whiskey, Indians, forest fires, ladies-for-hire, evangelists, and lumber barons. Between descriptions of the fetid bunkhouses, monotonous diets, and heroic brawls, he's managed some rare glimpses of the rough-hewn beginnings of Escanaba, Mich., LaPorte, Minn., Chippewa Falls, Wis., and other timber towns in the Great Lakes states. Wrote one itinerant Englishman: ""Wisconsin is a place where man reverts without pain to his natural condition, which is little above the beast of the field."" The lumberjacks--variously classified as teamsters, skidders, road monkeys, and river pigs according to their tasks--are a foul-mouthed but congenial lot and WelLs more than proves his case that their collective fortunes make ""an epic. . . comparable only to the days of the old and equally wild West."" Even if John Ford never made any movies about them.