February 16, 2008
River by Lowen Clausen
2008 Silo Press
Finished on 2/3/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
From a remote corner of a vanishing American landscape, a bereaved father begins a journey down the river that has been all but inseparable from his life. At the river’s origin the shallow stream courses through the ranch where he was born. It is where he fell in love the first time and where the ashes of his son have been poured.
"Now, before it’s too late, before I lose the will to do anything, I am leaving this land to follow the sticks I dropped into the river so long ago." But this man’s passage along the interlacing rivers to the ocean will not be simple or disconnected from the life he leaves behind. His estranged son’s last angry words echo in his memory, and despite moments of pure concentration on the waters ahead, the solitary voyager finds the past seeping into his thoughts and dreams.
In River, novelist Lowen Clausen has created a story of deep beauty and seriousness, in which he weaves together the complex threads of one man’s search for wholeness. Clausen’s rich, elegiac prose becomes its own landscape and river, transporting the reader on a journey through despair and doubt into discovery.
I have lived in Nebraska since 1992 and I have yet to see the Sandhills. However, as I read Lowen Clausen's evocative novel, I came to know those Sandhills like I know the beaches of San Diego, as though I'd been born and raised in western Nebraska instead of in Southern California.
Like Clausen's main character, John, I too have lost a child. And, I too own a kayak. But I have never once contemplated a trip down a series of Midwestern rivers, ultimately winding up in the Gulf of Mexico! The dangerous currents, barges, and weather are enough to keep me on the calm waters of our local lakes. Yet I still enjoyed this remarkable story. If 19 sticky notes is an indication of a good book, this one certainly qualifies.
The sunrise is long in coming. First there is a softening of the darkness, a gray tinge that dims the stars above the eastern horizon, then a pink glow that seeps through. It turns into a swath of yellow as if the sun will fill the whole sky, but it doesn't. It concentrates into a sphere of gold that rises above the sandhills and hurts my eyes.
Weariness weighs down my body as I get up from the riverbank and drag the kayak closer to the water. Her name is Gloria, and the idea of a journey with her has gotten me through one day after another. For months I've been planning this trip, buying equipment and supplies and storing them in the barn beside Gloria. Now that the day is here, the anticipation of leaving is gone and I feel empty.
Once more I look across the river into the hills as if I won't see them again. The coarse grasses along the bank of the river are green, but the rolling sandhills hold the dead brown of last year's growth. There are no trees on the hills and few even beside the river except at this place where the creek wanders down from the beaver dam to join it. Here willows cling to the bank and cottonwood trees have rooted in the low spots behind them. The willows are beginning to form new leaves, but the cottonwoods wait for more certain weather.
I push Gloria into the water and draw her close to the bank. The current pulls impatiently.
Clausen kept my interest in spite of the necessarily introspective tale of one's man's journey. The narrator's story slowly unwinds, keeping pace with the current of the rivers, slowly revealing the past through memories and thoughts. As John travels down Nebraska's Loup and Platte Rivers, picking up the Missouri and finally the Mississippi, I found myself recognizing various points of interest throughout his voyage: Brownville, NE ("This is a nice little town, but there ain't much here. We're getting a new bookstore though. Got a Greek name I can't pronounce. It's mostly for the tourists, I guess.") -- Rod and I visited the Lyceum Bookstore last summer; Indian Cave State Park, NE; Lexington and Saint Louis, MO; Memphis, TN; Vicksburg, MS (a fellow book-blogger lives here!). While I enjoyed my armchair-view of this journey, I can't begin to imagine the physical (and emotional) toil one must endure to travel such a distance with only a few changes of clothing, food fit only for Boy Scouts, and virtually no companionship. Clausen's vivid, yet at times elegiac, prose will appeal to fans of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. Fans of Huck Finn and Tom Saywer (with a keen sense of adventure) will also appreciate Clausen's lyrical writing.
This is a leisurely read, yet one that has made me anxious for warmer kayaking weather. Quite a joy to read!