Young writer's memoir hard to put down

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Reporters get sent a number of books to peruse, in the hopes something will come out of it -- "something" like publicity.

Plenty of those tomes go straight into recycling ... some of the alternative medicine ones hyping never-heard-of-products, for example. Others are myopic, self-published (and poorly written) biographies. Many simply don't fit under our "local is best" banner.

But sometimes, and I really mean at least this once, a gift between two covers lands on my desk. That's how I feel about Sarahlee Lawrence's "River House," a memoir written by someone too young to have written a memoir.

The bad news for all of you is that Lawrence's book took a circuitous route to get to me, starting off on an editor's desk before being placed on mine. It went under the radar and was almost immediately buried under paperwork and crusty coffee mugs.

And before the author did a reading at Whitman College in mid-November, which I failed to alert you about.

I unearthed the 272-page paperback at some point (which I am now referring to as "before 'River House'"), stuffed it into my messenger bag and took it home. From there, it was another 10 days or so before I ran out of recreational bedside reading and flipped open the cover of this book.

Only once before have I seriously considered calling in sick so I could read nonstop. This made the second time.

Lawrence immediately immerses the reader in her life. From the first sentence, we can tell hers is a world not known to most of us.

Improbable, in fact, until one has read far enough to come to believe the young woman and realize this is not some sort of dramatic version of "What I did during my summer vacation" by the then-college student.

By age 21, Lawrence had made numerous exoduses from her childhood home in Central Oregon. She went away to school, traveled and rafted some of the planet's most dangerous waterways. Growing up in the brown dust and heat of the area around Bend had given the young woman a rampant thirst for green and water.

Once temporarily quenched, the high desert called her name -- in a this-is-where-I-have-to-be sort of way. She thought about going home all the time, she told her rafting partner.

Lawrence had already traveled the paths first traced on a globe her mother had given her as a little girl. Besides riding rivers, she had ridden any number of transportation, element and homesickness challenges. With gusto and without regret.

But inside the envelope of dense jungle, sealed with tropical humidity, Lawrence found her dreams shifting.

It was time to go home and build a log house, created in her heart and scratched out time after time, in dirt and on scrap papers. Blueprinted in her heart.

At this point, I found I was going to bed earlier every night. "I'm so tired," I told my girls. But I didn't go to sleep, instead sinking into my new addiction, mentally traveling to Lawrence's spot in my state.

Oh, if only I could write like she does. When the author described the winters of Central Oregon, I pulled my covers over my head and tucked my legs deeper into electric warmth. I could very nearly hear the wind that blew over the heads of Lawrence and her dad as they strained day after day to erect log walls for the new house.

I fell asleep weighed down by slithery mud and tractors and recalcitrant logs ... frozen water troughs and weather-weary horses. In my dreams I watched the winter storms of Central Oregon threaten to take my roof.

You see what I mean? This is not just a book. This is more.

On some mornings here in early December my bedroom was so cold I imagined I could not survive the dash to the only-slightly-warmer bathroom to start a hot shower. "If Sarah could do it, I can do it," I told myself, forcing my body out of the nest of warm bedding.

And I haven't told you the half of it.

Once I could wrap my mind around the idea that the author is in the here and now, Sarahlee Lawrence would be a good person to call. So we talked, this young woman and I.

She's 28 now and was 26 when she finished "River House," Lawrence said over her cell phone as she directed her boyfriend where to turn the car. After a month-long book tour, she was headed home once again.

It's been explained that she is a few decades shy of having the material to write a memoir, the author told me. "But it's so much about my dad."

And it is. I fell in love with Lawrence's parents as I read her book, but I ached for her father, David.

During the course of helping his only child build her notched-log castle, David began longing for revival of his own dream of living where he could surf every day. He had merely tolerated ranching for 30 years, never not craving the sea and the ease of living inside sun-warmed skin.

By the end of "River House," he was on his way to spend the entire winter in Mexico, leaving behind his farm and family. It was 2006. That first year, they didn't hear from him for eight months.

He's there right now, Lawrence told me last week. In the past several years, her parents have carved out enough money to buy a slice of land and construct an outbuilding or two, "on this little piece of paradise," she said. "It's 3,000 miles from the ranch. It's a fabulous, fabulous spot."

The ranch, Lawrence said, is still her mother's dream. Always was. And now it's hers.

David leaves at the end of farming season -- returning in April -- to go reclaim the spirit he left in that warm Mexican sea. When Lawrence and her mom visit, he is a different person, the author said.

Yet she blames herself that he needed to go. "I broke him that winter. Working so hard on my house broke him."

Maybe, I told her. But couldn't it be that seeing his daughter find her true roots gave him determination to do the same? That her courage gave him some of his own?

"Maybe," she hesitantly echoed, no conviction in her voice.

"River House" is not a book with a message or lesson for the world, Lawrence insisted. "I just had a story."

Yes. She certainly did.

Box: "River House", by Sarahlee Lawrence, is published by Tin House Books. You can learn more about the author at www.sarahleelawrence.com.

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