River House takes readers on ride through life

Heather Allen, a Penticton writer and reader, reviews River House on a recent trip to Powell's Books in Portland.

On a recent trip to Portland I visited North America’s largest bookstore, Powell’s Books, which takes up an entire city block.

The rise of e-books and online booksellers doesn’t seem to panic this Oregon institution, which was literally packed with customers.

I wormed through the crowds to a display of books in the running for an Oregon writers prize. Eager to discover a local talent in a city famous for all things homegrown and organic, I was surprised by the first book in the stack: Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.

This book just won Canada’s Governor General’s Award and the equally Canadian Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Yet apparently deWitt has been living in the United States for years, and actually calls Oregon home.

Whether Canadians still have the right to call deWitt our own is debatable, but there is no question about the power of his writing. The Sisters Brothers is a funny and fresh take on the Western genre.

You don’t have to be a fan of the OK Corral or Zane Grey to love this book. History buffs might be a little annoyed by occasional anomalies, but the bending of truth comes together to create a fantastically off-kilter story about two eclectic hired-killers.

The second book I pulled from the display wasn’t by a secret Canadian. In River House, new writer Sarahlee Lawrence spends a year rafting various dangerous rivers around the world. While on one particularly hazardous river in South America, she realizes that her heart really lies in the dry landscape of her central Oregon home.

River House is a surprisingly moving tale about Lawrence’s return to her family ranch to build a log cabin with her father.

As they work, Sarahlee realizes the extent of her father’s own love of water. He grew up surfing on the California coast but gave up his ocean-loving lifestyle to marry a rancher from Oregon, essentially tying him to the land. As he listens to Sarahlee’s tales of white water adventures, he realizes how much he has given up.

The land surrounding the Lawrence’s ranch is being swallowed up and covered over with huge suburban homes. But even in this, the story of River House always comes down to water.

How will the little water available support new comers?

Already, the town has had to agree to fill in all the canals and wetlands running through the ranches, channelling the river into an underground pipeline.

Sarahlee’s dad used to paddle up and down these canals on his surfboard, his last tie to his old way of life. He is despondent. Fitting for Earth Day this Sunday, River House shows how even seemingly insignificant changes in our environment can affect so many aspects of our lives.

Lawrence writes about these troubles as she would navigate a river — with spontaneity and power.

If you’re ever in Portland, be sure to check out its landmark bookstore. You can visit Powell’s Books online, but that probably misses the point and the opportunity to chance upon new authors — Canadian or not.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.


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