Book Review: Where Rivers Change Direction

We have a bookshelf in our break room at work that is used as our book swap area.  People bring in all kinds of books: fantasy, thrillers, romance, self-help.  Being the book lover that I am, I can’t help but checking the bookshelf every Monday to see if there are any new titles.

In the past I have picked up some gems like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees and The Best American Short Stories 1991.

Most recently, I picked up a book that had an interesting title: Where Rivers Change Direction.  The title had enough meaning to make me use my tried and true book test.  After reading the back cover, I will read the first and the last sentence of a book just to see if both hook me.  I do not read anything more.  Just the very first and the very last sentence.

I can hear you gasping where you are reading this.

No, reading the last sentence doesn’t ruin a book.  I like to see if the first sentence grabs me.  Then I read the last sentence and if the two are interesting enough for me to ask “How did we start with that sentence and end with this one?” then I read it.  Sometimes the last sentence is just one word.  To be honest, I’ve yet to be let down by my little test.

That being said, the first sentence of this book is “When I was a boy my father had horses, over a hundred of them, some of them rank, and I sat them well.”  The last sentence of the book is “The fear that I have lived a careless life sweeps some nights over me with liquid flame  – hot as the fires that clear these ditches for their clean water.”  What brought that fear about?  What did his father do with the horses?  These questions instantly flood my mind.  I wanted to dive into Spragg’s world and discover what I could.

The book is an autobiographical memoir of his life on one of the oldest dude ranches in Wyoming just outside of Yellowstone Park.  Each chapter is an essay that moves through the author’s life and highlights the way life in the vastness of the Wyoming country.

Crossed Sabres Ranch

The essays are beautifully crafted, bringing the reader back into the author’s memories.  Each of the ranch hands are introduced in a way that you can easily understand why they still live in Spragg’s memory.  The descriptions of events at the ranch that hosted many people who came only for a week to play cowboy were wonderfully described in a way that I felt I was with Spragg as he rode his horses down the trails.

As he grew up, the essays took on a different tone, that of a young boy becoming a man.  His view changed, but his heart never really did.  Through each essay, you saw him deal with the reality of life yet hold on to the tenderness of his youth just more hidden than before because he understood more.

I have always held a romantic view of the American West.  The greatness of the land and the rugged wildness of it always called to me.  Maybe I was a ranch hand in a past life and reading this memoir allowed me to reconnect to that time when life was simpler in so many ways yet still forged strong people.

This book just confirmed the fact that I need to go on a dude ranch vacation before I die.  Even if they see me as a silly tourist playing cowgirl, I don’t care.  The idea of just being out in the open on a horse riding through the mountains and valleys is something that just seems so freeing and wonderful.

I also can see the value of having children read this book.  It’s the perfect coming of age story that really shows the struggles a child goes through on the path to becoming an adult.  The pains of first loves, spending one-on-one time with a parent, first jobs, dealing with loss are all artfully told in a way that allows the reader to immerse him or herself into the story and completely be able to relate.  The book also allows you to re-read it again in a few years and pick up entirely new meaning from the collection of memories.  If I ever become a teacher, I would like to think that I would include this in the reading list just for the sheer fact that it’s a beautiful memoir.

So, if you are looking for something different to read and something that will spark your imagination and probably increase your wanderlust, pick up Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction.  You won’t regret it.

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