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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
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.
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.
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.
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