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The Oregonian
Thursday, April 22nd, 2010
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Another Way the River Has: Taut True Tales from the Northwest (Northwest Readers)

by Robin Cody

Robin Cody's Essays Unfold Like the Bends in the Columbia River

A review by Peter Sleeth

The thing about regional writing that makes it so hard to create is it must evoke a place readers familiar with the area believe they know intimately, even exclusively, while simultaneously drawing something new and remarkable out of it.

It takes an instinctive feel for a landscape, a keen knowledge of the life-forms that inhabit it and an almost comprehensive knowledge of local history, lore and culture. Maybe it does not require being born to the land, but it sure seems to help.

Ken Kesey pulled it off in the most masterful way in Sometimes a Great Notion, where anyone who has ever driven down a coastal river in Oregon knew the place the Stamper family inhabited but never in the way Kesey discovered it. H.L. Davis did it in Honey in the Horn, where his first paragraph alone is worth rereading a hundred times just to feel the magnificence of the place.

When regional writing falls short, it is usually because the writer is simply a reporter, as opposed to envisioning the land in some new and magical way.

In Robin Cody's new book of collected essays Another Way the River Has: Taut True Tales From the Northwest, he reaches that lofty point of high-quality regional writing most often when he takes to the Willamette and Columbia rivers in his boat The Turtle:

"As I lay in the cabin, waiting for sleep, the moon broke clear and silver and bright," Cody writes. "Light from the long gone sun -- in a sensational bank shot -- reflections off reflections -- bounced from the moon, ricocheted off the river, and rippled the white ceilings of The Turtle."

In fact, the best writing of the book comes from Cody's time on his boat as it plies the waterways of the Northwest, bringing to the reader the kind of experience Aldo Leopold evoked in the legendary nature writing of A Sand County Almanac. Here Cody stops on the mud flats along the lower Columbia River:

Wisps of vapor danced across the river, and the songbirds were just a-going it. I walked back to the net-minding platform, newly attuned to an orgy of life and death at the threshold. Life at the border between water and land is richer than elsewhere. All along the wet mud bar were tiny air holes for little breathers taking on tinier fuel. Here in the back-and-forth wash of salt and fresh water, noiseless mouths and claws and filters were at work on the business of life. An aroma of rich rot filled the still air as the sun broke above the ridge to the east, powering up the whole haunting and wondrous system.

A native of Oregon, this is Cody's third book and his first in 13 years. Of the 24 stories, nine are new, nine previously appeared in The Oregonian between 1983-2001 and several more appeared in Portland Magazine and other publications.

Authors often release their collected works in the hope they bring some new light to the writing. These collections can contain both diamonds and rust, with dated storied reading just like what they are -- old stories. Some of the pieces Cody provides from the early 1980s call for resolution, or at least an update to what happened after. "Cutting It Close" ran in The Oregonian in 1983, and anyone who has ever spent time on a logging site or worked the woods knows the truth of the characters in this piece. The writing and characterization are taut, but the story is so old, and the world so changed, I was left wondering what happened to the men from Reed Logging.

The chilling "Killed in the Woods" uses a phrase anyone who has lived in rural Oregon has heard at one time or another, and it burns with anguish to read it and remember the loss.

The reprinted story "Miss Ivory Broom" is Cody at the height of his truest power: the ability to observe and empathize.

One of the delights in Another Way the River Has is that you are getting to know the author as he unfolds in each piece. Who would not take to a guy who comes off the river like a beaver with a curious streak, who can revel in the joys of a small-town baseball game, the sociology of a coffee shop or the charm of special education students that most of us never even see?

Ultimately Another Way the River Has is about us, who we are as a people, how we treat the land and each other. Anyone who recognizes the place we live contained in the pages of this book is bound also to find a new delight in the way Cody sees the same landscape. Reading Cody, when he is at his best, is a homecoming to a place millions of us share.

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