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Know the West

River tales: The Rio Grande from the headwaters to the sea


Trying to wrestle the Rio Grande into one book is a foolhardy undertaking, not only because of the river’s complexity, but because so many writers have attempted the feat before. But this new collection from Jan Reid is a tribute to the river rivaled only by Paul Horgan’s 1954 masterpiece, Great River.

Rio Grande is divided into five parts, each introduced by Reid with tales about those who wade the river’s waters, draw life from its ditches, and, sometimes, sit in a drunken stupor along its banks. The book’s standout writers include Charles Bowden, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Cecilia Ballí, who writes about the brutal murders of women in Juárez and laments that in Ciudad de la Muerte, "even the surreal is possible." John Reed, who penned Insurgent Mexico in 1914, is also here. Though he’s notorious for writing about Pancho Villa and later, founding the American Communist Party, Reed should be remembered for his simple, vivid prose: "Toward evening," he writes of the Mexican city of Ojinaga, "when the sun went down with the flare of a blast furnace, patrols of cavalry rode sharply across the skyline to the night outposts. And after dark, mysterious fires burned in the town."

Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers named the river "Rio de las Palmas" for its lush delta forest, but today, the Rio Grande often dries up before reaching the sea. Reid writes of traveling there with his guide, Gilberto Rodriguez. Standing a quarter-mile from the sea, Rodriguez tells him, "I have not brought you to the mouth of the river. I have brought you to the end of the river."

The book’s only shortcoming is that it leaves readers wanting more. Perhaps Reid will assemble a second volume. The Rio Grande is certainly worthy — and so is Reid.

Rio Grande

Edited by Jan Reid

336 pages, 50 duotone photographs, hardcover: $29.95.

University of Texas Press, 2004.