Somewhere up the crazy river
Robin Carey’s Upstream: Sons, Fathers and Rivers is a riveting story of river ascent, with a family’s troubled history unfolding along the way.
Rob and his son, Dev, former "down river" guides, decide to kayak from the mouth of the Klamath River in California 200 miles up to Oregon’s Klamath Lake. They want to learn "what’s up there," for they know that downstream and upstream rivers differ. Carey’s metaphorical "downstream" connotes adventure, joy and freedom from a too-regulated life. But "upstream" is where memory bedevils the mind, where one struggles forward, angry and exhausted, and where devotion to duty thwarts love.
As they journey upriver, Rob recalls his turbulent family history and tastes the "acrid flavor of legacy." Rob’s grandfather, Thomas, was a footloose Presbyterian preacher in Kansas. Despairing after his first wife’s death and consumed by religious mania, he forgives no sinner in his family. He flogs his son, George, later a preacher himself, with whatever is handy: a razor strop, a board, a barrel stave. Thomas’s second wife, Roberta, is carried away to an institution, "strait-jacketed and screaming."
Rob, the rebellious son of an abused and rebellious father, never knows whether he is devil’s spawn or in "the bloodline of Christ himself." His unflinching look at the warped lives of his grandfather and father invites comparison with Marilynne Robinson’s optimistic portrait of three generations of ministers in Gilead.
Nearly everyone Rob and Dev meet on the river tells them they are crazy. But they are encouraged by the story of Upstream Coyote, in Yurok Indian mythology, who paddled up the Klamath and became wiser. What Rob and Dev Carey attempt, and fail at, comes to seem profoundly sane. This message, wrapped in pain, is the book’s gift.
Upstream: Sons, Fathers, and Rivers
149 pages, hardcover: $18.95.
Oregon State University Press, 2006.