Goodbye to a River. By John Graves, Russell Waterhouse (illustrator). Vintage, 1960. 320 pages.
Review by Jeff Opperman, senior freshwater scientist, The Nature Conservancy
Not surprisingly, a river runs through the heart of John Graves’ Goodbye to a River.
The book describes Graves’ several-week paddle down the Brazos, accompanied only by a dachshund pup he calls “the Passenger,” in a sort of farewell to a river he grew up paddling down, swimming in and hunting and fishing along.
Five dams had been planned for the Brazos and his beloved twisting river was soon to be transformed into a series of lakes, so Graves and the Passenger take one last float.
But even more than a river, what winds through the heart of this book is Texas. Sure, Graves knows all the birds and fish and every bend and pool in the river.
But even more, he knows the valley’s people and their stories of loss and grit, many of the tales soaked in the blood that was spilled during the decades that the Brazos was contested territory between Anglo settlers and the Comanche. These stories aren’t retold from history books but from first-hand accounts from the old folks he knew growing up.
Graves amalgamates that Texan frontier toughness with a deep love of nature. He’s like Thoreau with a shotgun and a Stetson. He’ll spend hours trying to figure out what species of warbler is singing in the brush, and then blast a low-flying goose from the sky for dinner.
Read it if you love rivers, Texas, or simply flat-out beautiful writing. For example: “Big oaks gone red, and yellowed ashes rose precariously from slanted alluvial soil beneath the cliffs, piles of drift against their boles in prophecy of their own fate…”
Pretty poetic for riparian vegetation, depositional features, and instream wood. If Cormac McCarthy floated a river with a dachshund, it would sound a lot like Goodbye to a River.