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Discover Mid-America — February 2005

A Texas river in Midwestern backyards

Goodbye to a River, by John Graves; Vintage, Vintage edition, 320 pages, b/w illustrations by Russell Waterhouse, 2002, 0375727787

In the late1950s, John Graves remembered what it was to be a kid with a canoe on a river. A series of dams proposed for that river, the Brazos, would have changed everything forever. And, for one moment, he wanted to go and see again the things he thought he saw before.

Only a man in his late-30s can no more see the things he knew has a teenager than he can turn his life's clock back. He sees the things of his youth with the eyes of an older man, colored with the things he has learned and the wisdom he has gained.

Fortunately for us, Graves' understands this and his insight makes Goodbye to a River one of the finest, most easily read travel narratives of the last decades. It also makes it pertinent to Midwesterners who, more than most, have seen their cultural and natural worlds transformed again and again by commerce, government, development and agriculture.

Graves travels the Brazos, a small river that drains north-central Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The stretch that Graves chooses for his trip is that which was most familiar to him as a youth growing up in a small Texas town, that part of the river that flows from the Possum Kingdom Dam through Palo Pinto, Parker and Hood counties. The section of river, at the time Graves traveled it, was slated for a new reservoir and he knew that the land and its stories would soon be lost to ski boats and marinas.

But he reports more than the physical features of a river. Graves understands a river is a set of human conditions, histories, stories and principles both shaping and shaped by the river —as well as the things that make a river, such as hydrology, topography, climate, flora and fauna.

The result is a masterful rendering of a river as an actor in human affairs, a part of an elliptical relationship in which humans seek to re-form the natural environment for their own ends and wind up being re-formed themselves by that world they sought to exploit.

The beginnings of Graves' tale have native roots: the meeting of Indians —namely, the Comanche and Kiowa (the People, as they called themselves) —and those who sought fortunes on the fringes of white settlement (the old ones, as Graves calls those hardscrabble settlers). Where the People and old ones met, the result was never a Hollywood-resolved happy ending, but a violent clash that often involved bloodshed.

Meanwhile, old ones, being fringe dwellers, clashed among themselves. They robbed, raped, tortured and thieved. They wore out the land and bragged about it. They deforested, degenerated and self-destructed. Neither the People nor the old ones found themselves victors in generational fights that had little point. Rather, the victors enjoyed the fruits of their winnings for a greedy moment until the drought came, the wood ran out, the river flooded, the land went sterile or the next set of attacks came.

When the frontier had passed and the army had wrested the People into reservations, sectional strife worked its way into the blood and bones of the old ones. Southerners with no love of the South came here to farm and drove out the blacks that had escaped the oppression of their former masters. A spare, unforgiving Christianity grew up here, one that matched the land, and one that sanctioned vigilantism, summary death penalty, blood feud and gunplay. Out of this, a few noble figures rise. But they, too, are flawed, scarred and marred by the land and the people they came from.

When cotton, tobacco and bad farming practices wore the land out for good, the population thinned. The old ones' descendants moved to where life was not so humanly or physically rugged. Those few who stayed eked a living from the cedar (a sure sign land wore through), clung to old-time religion and shunned the modern world —mean, unfriendly, self-sustaining types who seem to know their time is at hand.

“Were there, you ask, no edifying events along the Brazos?” Graves writes. “Was it all gore and bitter gall, blow and counterblow, hate spun out to hate's only logical end? Didn't a mother somewhere along the river's banks once stroke a child's head and spark in him a flame to build laws or glory or ease for his people?”

His answer is that, of course, these things did happen. But to impose a happy ending on a myriad of events and a people so disparate and independent is not to tell the story of them.

“That gentler people did gain a kind of control is certain,” Graves writes. “That it was time they did so is probable. That the control they gained was deep and lasting, and wiped out the old evil roughness, and left space in every man for the Jean-Jacques Rousseau kind of good to rise up like milky sap, I've tended always to doubt.”

Goodbye to a River is an unflinching view of a disappearing world; and, in the end, a loving dialogue on a land and a people by a man who seems to believe deeply that humans need roughness in the physical and cultural worlds to become fully authentic.

Though written 45 years ago, the book's pertinence to present environmental, cultural and historical affairs cannot be overlooked. Neither can the ease of the narrator's voice, his wonderful writing or his fearlessness of a world not so distant from ours.

This is not to say that capital is not interested. It is very interested —development, retail and recreation. But the basic design, fixed assets and ultimately the ways in which people perceive the natural world are from them…not from a select few hoping to impose their perspectives on the many.


Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at poetrysheet@earthlink.net or publisher@discoverypub.com.


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