Friday, September 11, 2009

Goodbye to a River: A Narrative (a book review)

This week got away from me… I have been hard pressed to get everything I needed done, done. Therefore, I haven’t had much time for blogging. I wish I had the time to take a trip another trip, one like John Graves… Here is a book that I started to read for Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge. I ended up substituting another book, The Cape Fear, in that challenge, but I still wanted to read this book and I’m glad I did.

John Graves, Goodbye to a River: A Narrative (1959, Vintage Books, 1988), 306 pages, a few drawings and one map.

Traveling alone by canoe, one has an opportunity to do a lot of thinking. And that’s what John Graves did in the mid-1950s. A series of dams were being proposed along his beloved Brazos River in the hill country of Texas. As a final goodbye to the free flowing river, Graves and a puppy spent most of a November floating the river. Passing familiar bends, he stops to recalls the history of the area. Other times, he reminisces about a favorite fishing hole or the site of a hunt he’d enjoyed. He tells the stories of old settlers and in some places encounters folks whose roots to the river go back into the nineteenth century, at a time when the river was really wild.

The book flows as slow as deep water, allowing the reader to savor the stories. Graves recalls “the People,” or the Comanche, who’d controlled the area before Anglo-migration in the 19th Century. He tells the stories of settlers who died at the hands of “The People,” as well as those who helped “stabilize” the area. But it wasn’t really settled. Rough times preceded and followed the Civil War. Lynchings were common, feuds fierce and revenge a way of life. Lynching wasn’t just reserved for African-Americans. Caucasians, Mexicans and even in one case, a mother and several of her daughters found themselves with a rope around their neck and dangling as a “pendant from a limb.” “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,’ but the good citizens of Springtown, Parker County, Texas, appear to have honed themselves on His cutting tools.” Because of the feuds and desire for revenge, he admits that many stories were lost for they were not told because “like a broken-back rattler, [they] still had a bite left in them.” Graves also spends time pondering how stories have changed over time.

Life was as harsh in this country in the 19th Century, not just with the lack of law and order, but also with the limits of the soil as farmers and cattlemen strove to eke out a living. Graves tells about the various settlers and styles of cabins they’d built and about how, in time, pecans had became big business. But it’s an investment for the planter’s children, as the trees slowly reach maturity. Graves also ponders the blending of faith along the river. “Calvinistic fundamentalism and its joined opposite, violent wallowing in sin settled that part of the world and have flourished there since like bacteria in the yolk of an egg.” A little later he notes that it’s a good thing there are a “few Mexican Catholics around” for they “dull the spines of the Baptist prickly pear.” Even the pious were not above the feuds as he tells the story of a Methodist Episcopal Church-South preacher named Jim Truitt, whose testimony helping convict a man. In the end, the man’s son took care of the preacher.

Throughout his journey, Graves notes the calls and the habits of certain birds. He also is reminded of his time during the war, on islands in the South Pacific, a theme that seems to haunt him. Although he hunts and even shot a duck on the water for his Thanksgiving diner, he reflects on how he changed from his childhood. As a kid, he’d shoot any animal that moved, but now only shoots for meat. He also fishes, using a trotline when he needs meat. But he confesses his love for the fly rod, although he wouldn’t argue it with “a man who finds his joy in hurling treble-hooked bullets through the air, and winching his fish to boat or shore with an apparatus that practically thinks for him.”

As the end of the trip approaches, he finds himself pondering life off the river, noting, “It didn’t go on forever, the river.” In a like manner, I remember the last week of my trip on the Appalachian Trail, when I wished the trail didn’t end on that mountain ahead. But his trip came to an end and returned home to write this book.

This isn’t a fast book. It’s slow, but the stories are rich and the pace forces us to slow down. If you read this book, savor it!


  1. “It didn’t go on forever..."

    How many times I have discovered those words too late. For me it was the Grand Canyon.

  2. It's good to hear stories from someone who's spent that much time reflecting, on his own, mixing his adventures w/ the history of a place. I can see you writing this kind of book someday.

  3. Maybe when winter comes I'll have to start reading.

  4. its 9-12 my brother.
    are you watching carefully what is going on in Washington?

  5. Savor it like the slow roll of the river. Some books are made that way. I don't always want to read such a work, but sometimes it's the perfect prescription.

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  7. Ed, yes, it's a common experience, but rivers and trails come to and end and the journey takes a different path

    Scarlet, one of my goals is to write that book!

    Karen, then you'll be too busy waxing skis! :)

    David, what are you talking about?

    Charles, such books are not read fast, like an action novel and take patience, and I, too, can't always read them, but sometimes...

  8. I had a comment from Friday which seems to have disappeared. Anyway, this sounds like a winner. I've often wondered about the canoe-ability of some of those Texas rivers.


  9. Nice review. Once spent a quiet morning on the Guadalupe river north of San Antonio, all alone years ago. A few deer and a quiet river in summer. I'll have to read the book.

  10. Enjoyed the descriptions of the Calvinists, the Catholics, the Baptists and the Methodist Episcopals! The man has a way with words.

  11. His comment on fishing reflected an attitude held by my Grandfather.
    'Hurp, wet-fly, you may as well use a grenade and have done with it'.