Impressionistic essays about the New River, its history, and the people who make their lives around its course.
Kentucky native and All Things Considered host Adams (Piano Lessons, 1996) is much enamored of the New River, a small waterway that—counterintuitively—flows north from North Carolina to West Virginia, winding through the territory of Adams’s personal history. With “a wish to understand more about this part of the country and [his] family’s past,” Adams sets out to row, bike, and drive the 350-mile length of the New, chronicling the communities and people he meets along the way. The characters on the water are memorable, ranging from Mary Draper Ingles (who in 1755 survived capture by the Shawnee to escape and walk all the way home from Ohio equipped only with a tomahawk and a couple of blankets) to a fellow who currently makes his home in a school bus that is perched on an enormous rock outcropping in the middle of the river. It is the landscape, however, that is the most compelling character, as Adams’s work is strongest when he focuses on his surroundings. In general, the essays are much like glimpses of the banks from the middle of a swift-flowing stream: a collection of impressions divorced from context with little to link them. Adams writes in very short snippets, confounding the reader’s sense of narrative and momentum. He may be aware of this himself: He assures the reader that “If you go, I promise you’ll find a much deeper story,” and includes latitude and longitude information at the head of each chapter in case one should choose to make the journey along the New.
Any river-lover would envy Adams’s project, but following his route would surely be more satisfying than reading his work.