Building block 

River House clings to its literal framework

Other than sex, war and religion, the idea of homecoming is probably one of the most prevalent themes in literature. From The Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz, returning to the place of your origin is the linear plot of a nonlinear journey, proving that the closest distance between two points is never a straight line when one of those points is home. Even the commonness of the motif seems to substantiate the claim of its popularity: In their own writing, most authors consistently leave and then return to the idea of leaving and returning. To paraphrase an aphorism that I may have just invented but probably plagiarized from Oscar Wilde: In order to find your true home it is crucial to intend on leaving it forever.

click to enlarge River House - Sarahlee Lawrence - paperback, Tin House Books - 200 pages, $16.95
  • River HouseSarahlee Lawrencepaperback, Tin House Books200 pages, $16.95

In her fittingly titled memoir, River House, Sarahlee Lawrence attempts to chart this search for her roots from the moment she says, while aimlessly rafting a jungle river in Cusco, "I wondered when all these rivers would flow toward home instead of endlessly into each other?" Unconsciously or not, she realizes that the best location to discover home is as far away from it as possible.

A kayak instructor and adventurer, Lawrence spent her early years obsessively navigating some of the world's most dangerous rivers after being granted a fellowship to scour the globe for reckless white waves. The first few chapters of River House summarize her time as a river runner, and her compressed style vividly examines the extreme conditions she underwent; it's especially palpable in her running of the eccentric Futaleufu River in Argentina, where thoughts of her homeland, thousands of miles to the north, suddenly overtake her. In a moment of pain and loneliness she begins to sketch the floor plan of a future house she wishes to build on her parents' land with her bare hands. And she touches on an important metaphor: that she's drawing the blueprints of a foundation for a relationship with her father.

After the initial 50 pages or so of fantastic travel writing, Lawrence turns to the physical building of her log home in the farm-strewn desert of central Oregon, the reclaiming of a relationship with her surf-obsessed, pot-addled father and the frustration of farming. Regrettably, most of it is a tedious rendition of constructing her home in compulsive detail, interspersed with her stint in Missoula studying environmental science and writing at the University of Montana. Until the remaining 30 pages we learn more about notching and scribing logs, irrigation systems and how to properly lay cement than we do about either Sarahlee Lawrence or her father.

All the best moments in River House occur when Lawrence reminisces about the hopes and tragedies of her childhood on the family farm, and the friends and loves that make the land truly hers. The story of her irreconcilable parents is illuminating: Her mother is a grounded, sturdy woman, while her father constantly yearns for an exotic lifestyle centered around surfing, painting and smoking incredible amounts of marijuana. It is a dysfunctional unit that labor and geography have tempered into something like a family.

It is not until the end of the book when her father has a serious meltdown and leaves his wife and daughter to regain his freedom that we are finally admitted into something that could be called an introspective memoir. It is then that Lawrence seems to find herself, takes over her father's farming responsibilities, and grasps the saddening, yet hopeful implications of her father's resolute departure.

River House is written in a hard, diligent voice that isn't quite adequate to sustain the work's overlong length. Lawrence's inner vacillations between sticking to her project and abandoning it in favor of running rivers is believable and relatable, while her relationship with her unhinged father is one of intimate and mutual understanding. Her knowledge of the land and its inhabitants—their struggles against wealthy citizens erecting mansions and resorts in the region, local politics, the drive to replace canals with pipelines for endangered fish—is crucially diverting and informative. And yet, there seems an estranged gap of feeling between everyone involved, as though Lawrence were giving only a rudimentary outline of what she aspired to communicate with her book.

There is considerable love in Lawrence's book toward her father and all those who helped actuate her dream, but she does not spend nearly enough time on any of them to warrant our interest in the less-than-interesting passages of her house's construction. It seems at times like a well-written, rugged person's LiveJournal.

River House, more than anything, is about building an identity, yet it gets so mired in the metaphor of illustrating this that by the time of its denouement we are unconvinced that it's not a book solely about house-building, bookended by a brief travelogue on one side, and an abridged memoir on the other.

Sarahlee Lawrence reads from River House at Fact & Fiction Monday, Nov. 15, at 7 PM. Free.

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