Growing up, my family spent most weekends at a country cabin in Goodbee, Louisiana, about an hour north of New Orleans. The summer days were mostly the same – hours spent flying in the air on the homemade wood plank swings that hung from enormous oak branches, racing my horse through the pecan orchard, and finally, after lots of begging, a 1/4 mile trek through the woods to the Little Tchefuncte River for a swim.
I remember that river as one of the best places on earth. I think of it often now, and how it’s still there, its currents and eddies forever changing the banks that envelope it, the water still clear and cold and the oak trees still showering it with moss and branches. I guess it will be there forever, and that makes me happy.
I imagine that’s how Sandra Gail Lambert developed the idea for her first published novel – The River’s Memory, a captivating, languorous jewel of a book that should be required reading for anyone who thinks Florida is all Disney and condos and tourists. The main theme of the book – the voice, really, though it never speaks – is a river – one of the dozens of waterways that crisscross the state – and its quiet current carries us through several periods in the state’s history, introducing us in each section to a new set of characters all with very different stories. There’s the 16th century Indian potter, who scrapes clay from the riverbanks to sculpt into pots and dishes for her villagers, and whose artistry and compulsion are such that she’s viewed as something close to a sorceress. There’s a runaway girl who finds shelter in the remains of an old canoe. A legless woman who dresses like a man spends hours paddling the river’s unpredictable waters. A cynical worker from a waterside theme park finds solace in the familiar ground that the water has, over centuries, helped create.
The stories Lambert tells are remarkable for both the ordinary details she crafts into compelling prose and for the poetic, astounding way in which she makes us long for the scent of rotting leaves and the feel of cool spring water. The people she depicts in each era, by definition, are typical, yet in Lambert’s hands, they become extraordinary. Same with the flora and fauna: the manatees and ferns, minnows and snakes, birds, frogs – using descriptions that envelop the reader like a wafting perfume, all living creatures go from the mundane to the magical, and it’s exhilarating to read:
Branches hang over me, and their moon shadows flicker on my skin and on the white iris bloom that leans into the boat…The lamp shines into my face and down my body. It lights the tiny cones on the cypress tree, the curled stalks of baby ferns, and my hands that I hold out to the lamp….A turtle swims close by my nose. Spirals decorate the fringe of its shell. The days is almost here. Flecks of glimmer green show below us.
Honestly, I think Lambert could break that into stanzas and sell it as poetry – and her novel is filled with such passages. It’s my favorite kind of book, really – with lovely writing, interesting stories, and an underhanded way of sneaking in a few history lessons.
I’ve know Sandra Lambert for several years, and she’s a writer’s writer – the kind of word addict who schedules writing time the way most people plan their meals. She’s obsessive about her work and generous with her thoughts and ideas – and though I’ve heard her speak about this book, I’d never read it until now. And I read it thinking: Damn, this is art. If it had taken her a lifetime to write this, it would have been worth it, because the literary world is a better place for her having strung those words together.
It was magnificent, it particular, to read it while vacationing at Coldwater Creek, a Florida river very similar to the one in The River’s Memory. One day, as we canoed downstream, I steered us toward the slick grayish banks and pointed out to the children the walls of clay. I thought of Lambert’s pot shaper, and imagined that centuries ago, Indians had dug their fingers into this very piece of earth. I know this clay. I gathered it from our river, Lambert wrote in the voice of her ancient potter. Just then, my kids dug their little hands into the clay and stared at me, dumbfounded that this gift had presented itself to them. They each collected enough to make crude sculptures, and as I watched them mold and poke, I was a little dumbfounded myself. I’ve spent so much time wanting my children to appreciate the history of this beautiful place we call home; it had never occurred to me that, in their own way, they are becoming part of the history themselves.