Madelon Sprengnether’s memoir “Great River Road” gets its title from a meandering scenic byway running from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It is this road on which the author sets off at the beginning of the book, and on which she again finds herself in its final pages, standing by the car gazing out at the water in all of its mysterious and unpredictable beauty. In between, she invites the reader to share in a meandering rumination on memory and longing, family and aging, and all of the complex and wonderful things that make us human.
In the opening chapter, Sprengnether writes of losing her father to a drowning accident when she was a young girl. It’s an accident that isn’t dwelt upon in great descriptive detail, but which we nonetheless understand to have informed much of who she became as an adult. Anxiety born of this childhood tragedy was reinforced through various life events, perhaps most acutely her daughter’s proximity to the World Trade Center bombing. We get the sense, though, that Sprengnether’s late-middle age has been marked by an increase in confidence, her adventuresome spirit no longer quite so dampened by anxiety or grief as it had been. Among other things, “Great River Road” is a book about aging, something the author appears to be doing with great insight, sensitivity and grace.
Sprengnether is a writer of deep and varied intellect. In the space of this book, she wends her way around Freud, Shakespeare, Italian Renaissance painting and cognitive neuroscience. She is at her most compelling, though, when she writes as a mother, particularly in the chapter in which she chronicles the experience of traveling to England for her daughter’s wedding. Here is where the intellect falls away and the heart emerges, raw and real, on the page. “Great River Road” is partially a motherhood memoir, though refreshing from its vantage point of later motherhood. It deals with the tender complications inherent in watching one’s grown child get married, and of negotiating the resultant shifting of family roles and identities. Sprengnether’s adoration for her daughter is evident in the prose, her descriptions generous and praising. Though long divorced from her daughter’s father, together they form part of a loving constellation of family members that surrounds the young woman in times of emotional intensity both joyous and tragic.
Overall, “Great River Road” is an intelligent and engaging pastiche, its focus moving from personal anecdote to psychoanalytic theory to the latest research on how memories are made (and re-made). If we place our trust in the author and surrender to the book’s wandering style, it’s a ride well worth taking.
Emily H. Freeman is a writer and a teacher of writing in Missoula, Mont.