IT'S VERY SIMPLE: If you call Oregon your home—not just Portland, but this whole big awkward schizophrenic state—then you need to go to a bookstore and purchase a copy of Sarahlee Lawrence's River House. It costs $16.95 and it's published by Tin House, and as of this writing Powell's has five copies at its Burnside store and another 25 in the warehouse.
River House is a memoir, but don't be put off: The schtickiness and self-regard that characterize so many contemporary memoirs are nowhere to be found. In fact, River House is so far removed from the current blog-influenced memoir craze that to use the M-word almost seems unfair. (Another exception: Darren Strauss, reading in town this week, whose Half a Life displays remarkable candor and insight.)
River House opens in Peru, en route to the Tambopata River, just one of the waterways Lawrence rafts as a recent college grad on a yearlong tour dedicated to exploring and preserving the world's rivers. There's no shortage of adventure in the first chapter alone: Lawrence and her rafting partner hatch their plan to explore the Tambopata over rum and cokes at a Peru bar; after a 42-hour bus ride through the Andes, they face the river with only a map scratched on a cocktail napkin for guidance.
But River House takes an abrupt turn about 50 pages in: Despite the excitement of the first few chapters, it's suddenly clear that this isn't an adrenaline-fueled adventurer's tale at all. Lawrence's river stories were background, crucial to understanding just how strange it is when, at age 21, she feels compelled to return her family's acreage in Terrebonne, Oregon (central Oregon, near Bend), and build herself a house.
"I guess the rationale is if it can be done, I can do it," Lawrence writes of her approach to house building. With the help of her stubborn rancher mother and her quixotic stoner father, she lays foundation, strips logs, and builds herself a driveway, often in temperatures below freezing. But even as Sarahlee stakes her claim to the land, her beloved father begins to pull away, dreaming of leaving their landlocked valley to return to the ocean where he once surfed.
A clear parallel is drawn between Sarahlee and her father—between the incongruity of their love of river and ocean, respectively, in their dry, landlocked home. But where her father wants simply to leave, Sarahlee struggles to reconcile the parts of her that want both desert and water. Out for a ride one day on her horse, Nipper, she thinks: "Riding Nipper was liking riding a river. He moved liked water. I thought for a moment that this massive animal could take the place, at least partially, of the river. He could keep me satiated in the desert."
The book finds its tension and emotional appeal in the relationship between Sarahlee and her father, but it also offers a valuable perspective on a region Portlanders often don't think too much about. Prineville is described as "the heart of central Oregon's redneck contingent." Bend is "overrun with yuppie hippies"; Sisters "thrived with retired, quilting folks." (Portland doesn't merit much consideration at all—fair's fair). River House is a bighearted look at the qualities that are virtues in the rest of the state—where self-sufficiency means a lot more than a rain barrel and a few chickens—and if there's any justice, it'll become an Oregon classic. ALISON HALLETT