Texas Tuesday: Goodbye to a River by John Graves

Published in 1959, this nonfiction narrative tells the story of a November 1957 trip down a piece of the Brazos River in central Texas, just before several dams were built along the river to change its course and character forever. Hence, the title: Goodbye to a River.

Mr. Graves grew up along the Brazos, in Granbury, Texas or nearby as best I can tell, and his writing reflects his love for Texas, the Brazos, country living, and history. It’s also a nature-lover’s book and a chronicle of a lost way of life, the Texas of the 1800’s and early twentieth century. I enjoyed the book immensely, even though it wasn’t exactly about MY part of Texas, too far east for that. It was, nevertheless, about the kind of people that I knew when I was a kid of a girl growing up in West Texas among the fishermen and ranchers and hunters and wannabes. My daddy hunted deer during deer season and fed them out of season (I never really understood that). He also went fishin’, but he never paddled a canoe down the river.

The book and the journey it tells of are a taste of Texas and solitude and reminiscence and homely encounters with classic Texan characters, alive and dead.

“We don’t know much about solitude these days, nor do we want to. A crowded world thinks that aloneness is always loneliness, and that to seek it is perversion. Maybe so. Man is a colonial creature and owes most of his good fortune to his ability to stand his fellows’ feet on his corns and the musk of their armpits in his nostrils. Company comforts him; those around him share his dreams and bear the slings and arrows with him.” (p.83-84)

“Mankind is one thing; a man’s self is another. What that self is tangles itself knottily with what his people were, and what they came out of. Mine came out of Texas, as did I. If those were louts they were my own louts.” (p.144)

'Texas sunset' photo (c) 2004, Mike Oliver - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/“I used to be suspicious of the kind of writing where characters are smitten by correct quotations at appropriate moments. I still am, but not as much. Things do pop out clearly in your head, alone, when the upper layers of your mind are unmisted by talk with other men. Odd bits and scraps and thoughts and phrases from all your life and all your reading keep boiling up to view like grains of rice in a pot on the fire. Sometimes they even make sense . . .” (p.151)

“If it hadn’t been for Mexicans, the South Texas Anglos would never have learned how to cope right with longhorn cattle. If it hadn’t been for Texans, nobody else on the Great Plains would have learned how either.” (p.199)

“Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck–of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom–and though you may doze away at the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama you’re not going to manhandle into anything entirely new. It’s limited by what it has been, by what’s happened to it. And a people . . is much the same in this as land. It inherits. Its progenitors stand behind its elbow.” (p.237)

The moral of the story, and I think it’s true, is that I carry Texas and Texans and the Texas landscape in my bones. Even though I’ve never once paddled a canoe down a Texas river or lived rough in a campsite beside the river or caught or shot my own dinner and cooked it up, I am still somehow the inheritor of something that my ancestors, many of whom did all those things and more besides, passed down to me. I’m a city girl, but the Texas wildness and independence and what sometimes turns into a lack of respect for authority and a heedless devil-may-care attitude–all that lives in me, and more besides. I am a daughter of Texas, and Goodbye to a River was a wonderful tribute to some of the places and stories that make Texas great.

For more books about rivers, see last week’s edition of Book Tag with the theme of rivers.

For more books about Texas, see my list of 55 Texas Tales or past editions of Texas Tuesday.

If you love the essays and the localism of Wendell Berry, and especially if you have some connection to Texas, I think you would enjoy Goodbye to a River.

1957: Events and Inventions

January 3, 1957. Hamilton Watch Company introduces the first electric watch.

January 20, 1957. Israel withdraws from the Sinai Peninsula (captured from Egypt on October 29, 1956).

'Slow Time in Wrist Watch on Dry Leaf' photo (c) 2011, epSos .de - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/March 14, 1957. President Sukarno declares martial law in Indonesia. Sukarno continues to consolidate his power in Indonesia until he is made President for Life in 1963.

March 25, 1957. Six nations—France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg–set up the European Common Market or European Economic Community.

July 25, 1957. Tunisia becomes a republic, with Habib Bourguiba its first president.

August, 1957. Malaya receives its independence from the United Kingdom and elects its first president, Abdul Rahman.

'Memorial Museum of Space Exploration (Мемориальный музей космонавтики)' photo (c) 2011, Mikhail (Vokabre) Shcherbakov - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/September 22, 1957. Dr. François Duvalier (Papa Doc) comes to power in an election in Haiti. He later declares himself president for life, and rules until his death in 1971.

October 4, 1957. The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth.

November 3, 1957. The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 2, with a dog called Laika on board, the first animal sent into orbit.

December 20, 1957. The Boeing 707 airliner flies for the first time.

1957: Books and Literature

The National Book Award goes to a book called The Field of Vision by Wright Morris.

Albert Camus wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) publishes The Cat in the Hat, using only 236 simple words. The story, about a subversive cat who brings chaos into two children’s rainy day but then manages to resolve the problem before mom comes home, is an instant classic.

Published in 1957:
Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot. Mrs. Elliot tells the story of her husband, Jim Elliot, and the other men who in attempting to make contact with the Waorani Indians in Ecuador were killed by the very people they came to help.

Kids Say the Darndest Things by Art Linkletter. Art Linkletter had a daytime TV show, a talk show called House Party, and at the end of each show he had a panel of children that he talked with and interviewed.

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie. Aren’t trains romantic? Several of Agatha Christie’s novels involved trains, train travel, death on a train, even romance on a train.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I’ve never read it, even though road trips are one of my many fascinations. The New York Times hailed it as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as “beat”. I’m just not interested in drug-hazy memories of taking drugs while driving across country looking for more drugs.

The Guns of Navarone by Alistair McLean. We watched the movie based on this book a few months ago, and it felt really hokey and unbelievable. I remember the book as a better experience, but I read it a really long time ago.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss.

On the Beach by Nevill Shute. Semicolon review here.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I’m not an Ayn fan. Has anyone else here read it?

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. I read this book when my mom was taking the aforementioned Jewish literature class, but I was too young to get it.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. My opinion of this very long Russian romance is the same as her opinion, without the cursewords.

With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo

Somewhere along the way, however, the good reverend decided a small town meant a poor town, and a poor town meant humble people. Ollie’s daddy was born to preach to those people. His daddy had been a traveling preacher, as was his daddy before him, all the way back to the time of Moses. The Good Lord ushered him into that long line of preachers, and then his parents gave him the name Everlasting Love.
It was everything he was.

A children’s novel with a father/preacher character who is not cruel, not confused, not pathetic, and not looney is a rare jewel. I can think of one, off-hand, Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie. Now there’s a second.

And thirteen year old Olivene Love (Ollie), eldest daughter of Reverend Everlasting Love, is a PK who has no problem with being the daughter of a preacher; she just wishes he would settle down and preach in one place. The Love family spends three days holding a revival in one small town before moving on the next one: “[p]reaching, mostly—some singing and an occasional healing if the need arises.” Ollie is ready to stay in one place for a while, make friends, experience indoor plumbing and life in a house rather than a travel trailer.

I loved the characters in this book for middle grade readers. Ollie’s daddy gives her good advice:

“Be careful when you listen to people called they, Olivene. They often tell lies.”

“Some people are broken. They don’t know anything other than hatred. It’s like their heart gets going in the wrong direction early on in life, and they can never quite manage to bring it back around to love. It’s a sad thing and we should have compassion for them. Think of the joy they are missing in life.”

Ollie herself is a good girl, typical oldest child. Reverend Love says to her, “You are an example for your sisters in word and deed. I am blessed to call you mine.” Yet, Ollie isn’t perfect, not too goody-goody; she still gets impatient with her younger sisters, tired of living on the road, and sometimes a little too bossy for her own good. She reminds me of my eldest, whom I am also blessed to call mine.

Ollie’s mama, Susanna Love, is “like living poetry” as she welcomes the people who come to the revival meeting. Her sister, Martha, is the pessimist who’s always counting in her head to see who gets the most privileges or treats, but Martha is also the one who gets things done. Gwen, the third sister, is the spitting image of her father, and she wants to become a preacher just like him. Camille, sister number four, is “simple in mind”, but she almost has the dictionary memorized and has “an air of grace and dignity.” Ellen, the baby of the family, is friendly, a tagalong, and eager to please. Together, the Love family has a character and winsomeness all their own, rivaling other great families of literature such as the the Marches, the Melendys, the Moffats, the Penderwicks, or All-of-a-Kind Family. Actually, they remind me a little bit of the Weems family in Kerry Madden’s series Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, and Jessie’s Mountain, maybe because of the time period (1950’s) and because of the way that each of the girls in the family has her own personality and way of coping with life in a preacher’s family.

With a Name Like Love is a good family story with a good plot (I didn’t mention the plot, but there’s a murder to be solved, friendships to resolve, and family decisions to be made) and excellent, heart-grabbing characters. Highly recommended.

What are your favorite families in children’s literature?

In Which I Am Born

In 1957, the year I was born, Ed Sullivan had Elvis on his show for the third time, showed him only from the waist up, and said: “This is a real decent, fine boy. We’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. You’re thoroughly all right.”

Published in 1957:
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
If Death Ever Slept by Rex Stout.
Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot

Movies released in 1957:
Loving You with Elvis Presley.
Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley.
The Bridge on the River Kwai with Alec Guinness, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

On the actual day of my birth an earthquake shook Mexico City and Acapulco. But I doubt if my mom noticed it way out in West Texas.

Also born on July 28th (not 1957): Beatrix Potter, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Last year I wrote a list of lists and a bit of a meditation on the number 52. 52 is an interesting number with lots of associations. It’s a good number for lists, and I used it this year a few times to confine and order my thoughts in certain areas:

52 Ways to Celebrate Independence Day
52 Things That Fascinate Me
Summer Reading: 52 Picks for the Hols

I have several other lists of 52 in the works. I think I’ll stick with 52 (and 12) for lists; it just feels right.

53 is more solitary. It’s prime. In fact, it’s an Eisenstein prime. Whatever that means. And 53 is a self number. 53 is obviously not a number for links and lists and affiliations and organization. 53 is independent and somewhat isolated. It’s unique.

For this year, I’ll enjoy being 53, somewhat solitary, odd, and eccentric. Perhaps I’ll even be reclusive at times, as much as one can be reclusive in a family of ten people. I enjoy alone and different and distinctive and slightly idiosyncratic. 53 is the number of countries in Africa, so I’ll continue to work on my African reading project. But 53 isn’t the number for much else. It stands alone.

But at the same time, I still get to be 52. I still get to make lists and connections and relationships. Life, like numbers, has a rhythm. Pull back and enjoy your individual times of 53-ness, and then be 52 or 12 or whatever age the Lord has given you to be and fill the year with people and books and written words and encouragement and the messiness and joy of relationships.

That’s how I plan to celebrate this next year of becoming what God has for me.

And I might memorize Isaiah 53, a very 53-ish passage of scripture:

1 Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

I first saw this book recommended at the Breakpoint website. Then, I think I read this recommendation at MarysLibrary. So I finally got the book from the library and read it.

It was very good. Ms. Strout apparently knows something about small town life and about being a pastor or a pastor’s wife, even though the blurb says she lives in New York City. Abide With Me tells the story of Pastor Tyler Caskey who is serving in his first pastorate in the community of West Annett, Maine. The novel is set in the late 1950’s, about the same time I was born. Lots of period details give life to the story and make it seem real. People are worried about Khruschev and the Communist threat, building bomb shelters, how to survive a nuclear attack. Then, there are the more immediate concerns of the village, such as a new wife for Pastor Caskey whose wife Lauren died a year ago and what’s to be done about the pastor’s five year old daughter Katherine who’s misbehaving in church and in kindergarten. Tyler Caskey has his own thoughts and worries: should he support the church organist’s bid for a new organ and how can he please his congregation, his mother, and everyone else, including God? And will he ever experience The Feeling, that indefineable sense of God’s presence and blessing, again?

Abide With Me is novel about grief and about maturity. Tyler Caskey is a protagonist who reminds me of Engineer Husband; he wants everyone to be happy. Sometimes, if things are not right, he wants to pretend that they are. He’s not a man to make waves, to disturb the universe. Unfortunately, life doesn’t cooperate; suffering comes; and Tyler finds himself finally unable to cope with the trials of his congregants, the needs of his family, and his own grief and guilt over the death of his wife. Things come to a crisis on a Sunday morning, as Tyler is supposed to be preaching, and the inhabitants of West Annett receive an opportunity to give grace and mercy to the pastor who has tried to give them the Word of God in spite of his own brokenness.

Elizabeth Strout’s second novel reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s second novel Gilead. There’s the same gently descriptive writing, the same delight in the natural world and the dailyness of life, the same sort of pastoral protagonist, although Tyler Caskey is much younger than Robinson’s Reverend Ames. Both men are humble servant/leaders, reluctant to claim that they have all the answers or know the mind of God. If you liked Gilead, if you are a pastor or a pastor’s wife, if you are interested in an account of living a Christian, but imperfect, life, you should like Abide With Me. It’s the best book I’ve read this year so far.

From a sermon by Tyler Caskey (never delivered):

“Do you think that because we have learned the sun does not go down, that in fact we are going around at a dizzying speed, that the sun is not the only star in the heavens —do you think this means that we are any less important than we thought we were? Oh, we are far less important than we thought we were, and we are far, far more important than we think we are. Do you imagine that the scientist and the poet are not united? Do you assume you can answer the question of who we are and why we are here by rational thought alone? It is your job, your honor, your birthright, to bear the burden of this mystery. And it is your job to ask, in every thought, word and deed: How can love best be served?

God is not served when you speak with relish of rumors about those who are poor in spirit and cannot be defended; God is not served when you ignore the poverty of spirit within yourselves.”

Tyler says in the book that this sermon excerpt breaks one of the cardinal rules of homiletics. Do you know what rule he breaks? (I didn’t even know there was such a rule; I’m going to be listening carefully to my pastor’s sermon next Sunday to see if he ever breaks The Rule.)

Two Books by Nevil Shute

On the Beach by British author Nevil Shute was published in 1957, the same year I was born. It tells the story of the last survivors of a nuclear war that has left enough radioactive fallout to eventually blanket the entire globe and annihilate all humankind. Almost the last inhabitable places are near Melbourne in southern Australia. The book is set in and near Melbourne and begins with T.S. Eliot’s famous words:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river . . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

On the Beach may be the saddest book I’ve ever read. I’d add it to my list of Best Tear-Jerkers, but it’s not exactly a tear-jerker. It’s just ineffably sad. The world is ending with a whimper, and Shute describes the effect of that sort of hopeless situation on a group of rather ordinary people. I have a few quibbles with the way he describes it all; I think there might be more religion, and more violence at the same time, in such a world, but maybe it would be just as Shute says. I hope I never live in such a time and place to find out. This book was fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, but it’s as close as I want to get to the edge of hopelessness.

Nevil Shute Norway was an aviation engineer who started his own aircraft company and worked on the development of secret weapons for the British during World War II. Before and after the war, he worked as a novelist and wrote a total of twenty-four novels. He’s said to be better at plots than at characterization, but I found his characters in On the Beach and A Town Like Alice, the other of his books I read, to be quite memorable. Commander Dwight Towers of the U.S. Navy is a law-abiding faithful Dobbin of a ship’s captain who nevertheless is attracted to Moira, an Australian party girl. Jean Paget, in A Town Like Alice, is a heroine of uncommon depth and character although it takes a war and the Australian outback to bring out all the resources she finds within herself.

I must say something more about A Town Like Alice, especially since it was my favorite of the two books by Nevil Shute that I read. If the the two books have a common theme it’s that of ordinary people responding to extraordinary circumstances with courage and ingenuity. Much more upbeat than On the Beach, A Town Like Alice is a novel in two parts. The first part is about Jean Paget, one of eighty women captured by the Japanese on the Malay pennisula and then marched from place to place because their captors don’t know what to do with them. (This first part of the novel is based on a true event that happened in Sumatra rather than Malaya.) The second part of the story takes place in Australia as Jean comes to see that she is more than just a survivor; she’s also a builder, able to grow and thrive in the Australian desert.

Engineer Nevil Shute Norway does know how to tell a good story. I recommend both of the books I read. Just don’t choose On the Beach for a day when you’re already depressed about life and the world in general. It’s more appropriate for the times when you’re feeling a little cocky and need a bit of a sobering reality check. A Town Like Alice is useful for inspiration and a good, decent story.

On the Beach and A Town Like Alice have both been made into movies, each one twice in fact. The 1959 version of On the Beach starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astair, and Anthony Perkins. Nevil Shute hated the movie, but it made him famous and probably scared the heck out of a whole bunch of people.

Nevil Shute Norway Foundation.
Will Duquette at View from the Foothills has reviewed several of Nevil Shute’s novels.

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