Strong, tough, and able, but wearing youth's sentiments and sweet narcissism, Sarahlee Lawrence recounts in "River House" her life as an expert runner of wild South American rivers, and her return to her family ranch in the high desert of eastern Oregon.
She returns home to build her own log house -- with the help of the difficult but generous and eccentric father from whom she got her love of wild water. Hovering behind both of them is her mother -- Sarahlee's double in other ways. Mother and daughter are both tall, strong women who move hay bales by the ton and train wild horses.
The publicist at Tin House Press called this first book by the 26-year-old writer "exquisite" -- it's anything but. The "literary" aspects are kind of ham-handed. Frequent metaphoric oppositions of water and desert become repetitious; the occasional phrasemaking or rhapsodizing is usually beside the point.
But the book has great non-exquisite virtues. It's a sturdy, honest, and direct recounting of the author's audacious life in unusual places, and is a beautifully clear exposition of her relationships with her parents, neighbors, and friends, living and dead. The book holds riveting interest for anyone with a rural background, knowledge of just how damn hard it is to make things that last, or a concern for marginal environments.
A very young person is writing this memoir, and so it is her story as a child as well as an adult. She's an intensely hardworking, tough, self-directed and self-invented human being -- but a child as well, still struggling with her love for a father who is both a generous source of help and love and a frustrating presence.
Even though her father works as brutally hard as any of the other rural people in this tale, he's also a doper, an artist, and a free spirit who longs to escape the grind of the dryland hay farm and go surfing (he's as accomplished a surfer as his daughter is a whitewater river-runner).
Is this father a self-indulgent child -- despite sticking to this farm, his wife, his daughter, the punishing round of work, for 20 years -- because of his intractable dope-smoking and longing for faraway waves? The question haunts his river-loving, world-wandering daughter in the subplot that her river stories create.
This book is like a newspaper: The writing may be fine but it's the relation of that writing to what actually happened that we care about. You can follow Lawrence's story at www.rainshadoworganics.com, her farm's website. There's a lot of story yet to come, and she has made us care about it.
Ann Klefstad is a writer and artist in Duluth.