The Gunnison River is so vividly conjured in this evocative novel that it feels like a character in itself. It ebbs and flows, a river in the foothills of the Elk Mountains, surrounded by forests, flowing by the tiny town of Iola. Inspired by the northern Colorado landscape that the author grew up in, and published in more than 30 territories, this moving debut novel has a title that takes on an incantatory feel as the narrative progresses – an invocation to “go as a river”, to literally go with the flow. The author’s characters draw strength and sustenance from nature.
A fateful encounter happens one autumn morning when 17-year-old Victoria “Torie” Nash is heading towards her village, pulling a wagon filled with peaches from her farm. Near an intersection in the road, a mysterious young man stops to ask her the way. He shares something with her, too: an instruction to “go as a river”.
This man is Wilson Moon, a drifter displaced from his tribal land in the Four Corners region. Victoria attempts to absorb and follow his haunting words. Their encounter sets the scene for a novel that explores the paths of life and the choices we face when deciding which way – and with whom – to wander.
Victoria is at first unsure of herself. She must learn to trust in her own strength and judgement in making choices, tackling the obstacles that she faces as a woman coming of age in the 1940s.
“At a certain point you say to the woods, / to the sea, to the mountains, to the world, / Now I am ready.” These words by Annie Dillard are the epigraph to this lyrical novel, which charts Victoria’s journey to a point of readiness.
It is the woods, sea, mountains and rivers that endow in Victoria that readiness – the novel is itself a communion with nature, and shows how when all other relationships are broken and lost, one’s relationship with nature becomes crucial. The outer landscape both delicately and unflinchingly traces the inner landscapes of Read’s characters. This is a story full of heartbreak, yet also hope.
It is fascinating, too, in its exploration of Native American concepts of time and “becoming” – that life is in a constant state of becoming. Through Victoria’s relationship with Wilson Moon, Read dissects place and displacement in the American West and the effects of the devastating cultural genocide against native people in the quest for western expansion.
Other elements of the natural world become powerful symbols. Trees arch and fork as Read explores rootedness and strength. Victoria’s orchard, a “beautiful thing”, gives her a sense of purpose and “resilience in new soil”.
Victoria ends up fleeing from home and as she ascends through the wilderness of the surrounding mountains, she journeys from the cottonwoods of Iola to the pine and aspen forests of Big Blue.
Through lush imagery of the natural world, Go as a River shows the possibility of growing in the most challenging of circumstances, the power that flows through us, and how the natural world can give us the strength to keep on flowing.
Go as a River by Shelley Read (Doubleday, £14.99)