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Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg

Where Rivers Change Direction

by Mark Spragg

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I enjoyed the language of this book. It's reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's descriptions of the West in All the Pretty Horses. I found it lacking in story line and trajectory. Each chapter is a snapshot of the narrator's life, and while each was interesting, I had hoped they would come together into some kind of resolution by the end. I suspect that the lack of resolution was intentional but as a reader I found it dissatisfying. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
Mark Spragg is a wonderful writer. His sense of place in the modern west of his native Wyoming is impeccably rendered. The trouble is, because these essays were written and printed elsewhere as separate pieces, that "place" thing is done over and over - the flora, the fauna, the rocks, the rivers and creeks, the cold, the wind, etc - to DEATH in fact. This very redundancy in the book dropped it from a five- to a four-star rating. The coming-of-age aspect of the story, Spragg maturing from a small boy to a middle-aged man who sees his parents divorce and his his own marriage fall apart, then watches his mother die a slow and painful death from emphysema, is handled like a master. You wanna read what it's like to to grow up out on the high plains near the end of the 20th century? Then this is a good place to start. Mark Spragg writes, in many ways, like a poet. His love of language is clear. WHERE THE RIVERS CHANGE DIRECTION is a darn fine book. ( )
  TimBazzett | Sep 20, 2011 |
The absolute best memoir I've ever read. Mark is an amazing wordsmith. ( )
2 vote peartreebooks | Jun 18, 2010 |
When you think of western poetry, you think of waddie mitchell...but the poetry of western life...this is it. One of the most eloquent, breathtaking books i have ever read... this man is in love with the land, and it shows in every word. Absolutely beautiful.
FAVORITE QUOTE: I walk out on the frozen ground, careful that the wind does not blow me east. I feel that insubstantial, and that elemental. ( )
1 vote donkeytiara | Feb 8, 2007 |
I’ll start by loading the hyperbole at the start of this review: Mark Spragg’s account of growing up on a Wyoming dude ranch is quite probably the best memoir I’ve ever read. Yes, better than the other autobiographies I’ve heaped praise on: Road Song (Natalie Kusz), This House of Sky (Ivan Doig), This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff). Better, even, than Angela’s Ashes.

Yes, it’s that good.

Where Rivers Change Direction is that rare breed of book—an intensely personal self-examination of a life that transcends the boundaries of place and circumstance to become a universal meditation on the things we all hold dear. It is an incredibly subtle and restrained book. Like its subjects—the men of the modern West—it is taciturn and stoic. Yet, the prose blooms with as much beauty as a bright splash of Indian paintbrush in a field of sagebrush.

I should tell you right now that I felt an immediate kinship with Spragg when I read he grew up on a dude ranch in the Wapiti Valley in northwestern Wyoming. I grew up in Jackson Hole, 90 miles to the southwest as the raven flies. My nostrils also flared when I learned he lived in western Pennsylvania before moving to Wyoming as a young lad. Same here.

I know Spragg’s Wyoming intimately; I know the granite peaks, the blade-sharp wind, the “snow that will blunt all noise to whisper.€? I know these men with their rodeo-broken bones and weather-creased faces; these women hunkered down to survive the winters of discontent and isolation; these boys who bypass boyhood, sprouting from toddlers directly into stiff-gaited men at ten years old, boys capable of roping, riding and starting each day with a shot of whiskey. I grew up surrounded by these clammed-up cowboys.

But I never went beneath their skin until I opened Mr. Spragg’s pages and entered his world. Spragg, along with his brother, was raised on a dude ranch six miles from the east gate of Yellowstone National Park in the Shoshone National Forest (“the largest block of unfenced land in the lower forty-eight statesâ€?). He grew up in the 1960s with no television, no daily newspaper—just a corral full of horses and miles of wild beauty in every direction. In the summer, he led city-folk on day trips through bear country; in the winter, he guided clumsy hunters in search of elk. His days began in the dark of pre-dawn (bolstered by a shot of whiskey) and ended, bone-weary, in the dark of evening.

In between, he lived a life which he carefully observed and stored in his memory for decades. And now, he has given us the gift of all those reminiscences in the pages of Where Rivers Change Direction.

I am fond of the sound of horses in the night. The lifting of feet. Stamping. The clicking of their iron shoes against rock. They mouth one another’s withers and rear and squeal and whirl and shuffle and cough and stand and snort. There is the combined rumblings of each individual gut. They sound larger than they are. The air tastes of horses, ripples as though come alive with their good-hearted strength and stamina.

This is the first book Spragg has written, though he’s edited a collection called Thunder of the Mustangs. He’s also written screenplays (one, a television movie starring Dennis Quaid called Everything That Rises, is now on my short-list to go out and rent) and has published several essays over the years. At 48, it may seem like Spragg has taken his time in getting around to publishing a book, but like a delicately-fermented wine, the wait has been worth it.

The language has the simplicity of Hemingway and the gritty lyricism of someone like Cormac McCarthy. Spragg has boiled his experience down to its purest, truest form. The result is something like that cowboy coffee you can taste after it’s been simmering over the campfire for half an hour, the kind of brew that will make your sleep-crusted eyes crack open after one sip.

Here’s how Spragg describes the early-morning activity of the bunkhouse where he and the other ranch hands lived in the summer:

The men start to come awake: Gordon, in stages of coughs and turnings; Phil uncoiling slowly, his body going rigid in a series of stretches, and then languid, finally propping his head and shoulders against a pillow, lighting a cigarette; and John all at once…The linoleum in the bathroom is always cold. The heat rises in the stove, and the flue groans and ticks. If the boots lined behind the stove are not yet dry they begin to steam. I still think of the scent of men as a thing combined of wood smoke, tobacco, pine, whiskey, leather and horse urine. It is four in the morning and solidly dark. Once one of us has turned the bathroom light on it is left on and casts a weak, flesh-colored column of light back into the sleeping room. We dress in this light.

Each chapter of the memoir is a self-contained essay about the rigors of growing up close to the land. Some of the stories are positively hair-raising (a hunter slices off most of his finger while gutting his kill and it’s up to Spragg to get them both out of the wilderness), some are wryly poignant (Spragg’s puppy love at the one-room schoolhouse ends with the object of his affection punching him), some are so perfectly beautiful it makes you ache just to read the words (Spragg rounds a bend in a forest trail and stumbles upon an elk giving birth).

I took my time reading this book, savoring the compressed poetry on every page. Like the Wyoming landscape itself, Where Rivers Change Direction is something I’ll revisit often in the future, pausing to marvel at the soul-shattering handiwork every step of the way. ( )
4 vote davidabrams | Jun 21, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0099280752, Paperback)

Growing up in rural Wyoming, Mark Spragg learned early to read the stars. At 11 he was instructed to quit dreaming, and he went to work for his father on the land. "I was paid thirty dollars a month, had my own bed in the bunkhouse, and three large, plain meals each day." The ranch is a sprawling place where winter brings months of solitude and summer brings tourists from the real world--city types who want a taste of the outdoors and stare at the author and his family as if they were members of some exotic tribe: "Our guests were New Jersey gas station owners, New York congressmen, Iowa farmers, judges, actors, plumbers, Europeans who had read of Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull and came to experience the American West, the retired, the just beginning." By the age of 14, he and his younger brother are leading them on camping trips into deep woods. "No one ever asked why we had no televisions, no daily paper. They came for what my brother and I took for granted. They came to live the anachronism that we considered our normal lives."

As Spragg comes to realize the strangeness of his life, he also detects flaws in his own character--a fear of suffering and mortality that first shows itself when he rides a sick horse too hard, until the animal hovers at the brink of death. He knows that if he had faced the possibility of sickness, if he had been brave, this animal would not have declined so quickly. Throughout his life, this inability to face death, this terror of losing the beauty of the world he so passionately witnesses, drives Spragg to distraction.

Where Rivers Change Direction combines a soaring spirituality with a visceral, often stomach-churning attention to detail. It's a book that continually dares the reader to turn away from its pages in an effort to digest the power of its confused emotions and hauntingly spare images (a "moon-fried plain," a stillborn child "baked alive in my mother's body"). Like Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, Mark Spragg's memoir makes you feel you've been somewhere, you've been out in the depths, and you've come back changed. --Emily White

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:24 -0400)

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