Where Rivers Change Direction

Mark Spragg, Author University of Utah Press $21.95 (267p) ISBN 978-0-87480-617-5
Wyoming, land of wind and dust, of suicides, loneliness and fierce lovemaking, of uninterrupted vistas stretching 20 miles in every direction, of hard-drinking men and fighting women, forms the backdrop to Spragg's brave and beautiful coming-of-age memoir. Readers expecting a quaint, picturesque yarn will find instead an elemental, powerful confrontation with the naked realities of living and dying. Growing up on the high Yellowstone Plateau on the state's oldest dude ranch, a family business dating back to 1898, Spragg wrangles horses for his taciturn father, trying to win his respect and approval. At age 14, Spragg shoots and mercy-kills his beloved, aged, sickly steed, whose corpse will be used as bait for bears targeted by human hunters. The teenage Spragg joins his father on hunts, an experience he recalls ruefully (he no longer hunts, he reports, and became a vegetarian for five years). With self-deprecating wryness, the author, a screenwriter and essayist, re-creates adolescent crushes and hijinx. From quotidian events--communing with horses, attending a livestock auction--he fashions existential encounters with nature, self, fear, death, God. Composed in clean, crisp prose, his loping narrative is peopled with memorable characters, like his 40-ish mentor and bunkmate, John, a smiling, battle-scarred WWII veteran, or the mediumistic Greenwich Village waiter from India who tells Spragg, then 27, about his dead infant sister, reducing him to tears. Encompassing his marriage, divorce and remarriage, the book closes with Spragg's almost unbearably poignant account of caring for his mother, dying of emphysema and housebound on an oxygen inhalator. A piercing voice from the heartland, this resonant autobiography weds the venerable Western tradition of frontier exploration of self and nature with the masculine school of writing stretching from Hemingway to Mailer. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 11/01/1999
Release date: 11/01/1999
Paperback - 283 pages - 978-1-57322-825-1
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