River House: A Memoir
by Sarahlee Lawrence
Reviewed by Matt Love
After finishing Sarahlee Lawrence's astonishing debut River House, a memoir set primarily in central Oregon, I looked at my vast collection of books written about living in the Pacific Northwest. It suddenly occurred to me that I had just read an original story by a rocking new talent that signals a fresh approach to writing about the region and its inhabitants.
Put another way, River House feels like a watershed book for the region's younger generation. They need their own interpreters of the Pacific Northwest experience for the new millennium, and River House firmly establishes Lawrence as one of the region's premier younger voices.
After graduating from college, a 21-year old Lawrence earned a fellowship to travel outside the U.S. for one year to pursue a passion -- floating some of the great whitewater rivers of the world. Lawrence grew up on her parents' 80-acre ranch in Terrebone and attended Redmond High School. She loved her parents, the high desert landscape and her horses but longed to escape, get out of Oregon and see the world. She did exactly that.
River House begins with Lawrence's fellowship year, during a harrowing run down Peru's Tambopata River. In the jungle, sometimes alone, frequently imperiled, Lawrence lived her dream, but it didn't satisfy her.
One night, she picked up Thoreau's Walden and eventually heard a call, from Oregon, to go home and create something unique. How many of us who have journeyed to exotic locales in search of something felt exactly the same way? When I read Lawrence's account of her epiphany, it resonated more deeply with me than anything I've read about Oregon in a long, long time.
In her tent that evening, Lawrence sketched a house she wanted to build back on her parents' ranch. Not just any house, but a log home that she would craft by hand with help from her father. She writes, "Central Oregon was bloating with wealth and places that looked like nursing homes, mansions built for two people to enjoy a view on the weekend. I was making a conscious choice to live differently."
Building the log house in winter forms half the foundation of the memoir. I can't recall reading a book that contains so many superb gritty passages about manual labor, and in one stretch Lawrence works 63 straight days. I also think she may have written the best love letter to a chain saw in the history of American literature.
Lawrence's testy relationship with her father completes the foundation and provides a unique conflict that at times is agonizing to read. After 28 years on the ranch, he's burned out, sick of the winters and drudgery. Despite his long residence in the area, he has established virtually no ties with anyone around him. He longs for the ocean so he can surf, play his guitar and get high. He helps his daughter build the house but makes it clear the duty is a chore. At one point, his frustration boils over and what happens takes River House into unexpected territory. Quite frankly, how it all ends will break a reader's heart.
The prose in River House pulses with movement. At times, Lawrence writes like I imagine she runs wild rivers. Nothing drags in this book. It perhaps could have benefited from some photographs and a concrete sense of the year certain events unfolded, but these omissions barely detract from a significant accomplishment for Oregon arts and letters.
River House presents to me something entirely new in the regional nature memoir. Lawrence writes about many of the usual suspects: landscape, salmon, trees, environmental politics, family, soulless trophy homes, Californication and water. But by virtue of her youth, pluck, passion, work ethic, stubbornness and a crisp, unadorned prose style, she has stripped the sheen off the genre and dirtied it up a bit. Dirty is welcome.