River House

SOME MIGHT THINK it a bit presumptuous for a person to publish a memoir when she is in her early twenties, but Sarahlee Lawrence has experienced more adventure in a couple of decades than most of us can hope for in a lifetime. River House is the story of Lawrence’s evolution from die-hard river rat to homeowning inhabitant of the central Oregon desert. It is also a proclamation that these two identities are much too simplistic — in her search for balance between “wings and roots,” Lawrence discovers that coming to know the meaning of “home” is as difficult as it is essential.

“I swam laps in the college swimming pool repeatedly in a single breath,” Lawrence writes early in her narrative, “because I thought drowning could be a distinct possibility in my near future.” As a teenager, she runs the Colorado, turns her raft, and finds herself dangerously and repeatedly submerged in a crash of white water. Fresh out of college, Lawrence runs a dangerous section of the Tambopata River in Peru with another guide she barely knows, who accidentally slashes his shin to the bone. Without a proper first-aid kit, she bandages his festering wound with a shirt and drags the two of them back to civilization. She travels East Africa, South America, and other parts across the globe, seeking the best water, running wild, youthful, and raw, until she finds herself struck hard by a bout of unbidden homesickness. With the beautiful rivers of the Earth at her feet, Lawrence feels, for the first time, a strong sense of belonging to a place — her family’s desert ranch. She grinds through the last weeks of her journey and heads home.

In a flush of idealism, Lawrence begins building her own log house on her parents’ property, just a short walk from the home her own father built, the one she grew up in. Soon enough, she realizes that the near-drowning is as metaphorical as it is actual. It becomes clear that a good deal of the cabin-building rises from a desperate need for connection with her father — a complex and flawed character. Considering her place on the farm alongside her dad, Lawrence writes, “I planned to take over eventually, but I wasn’t ready yet. I hoped that my presence would make him happy, to have the next generation willingly in the traces. That he’d be less lonely. I imagined us farming together and cruising over to the Oregon coast for a short surf trip if the swell came up.”

With surfer roots in Mexico and coastal California, Lawrence’s dad cares for his daughter and engages in her building project with love, yes, but also with the confused, jangled, detachment-from-reality of the chronically stoned. As his dissatisfaction with life as a rancher builds toward breakdown, Lawrence is forced to reconsider her own sense of home, and carefully constructs a thoughtful story through which she finds a difficult footing in the interconnected themes of family, water, desert, community, place, and love.

River House is a first book from a young author, and this sometimes shows. The writing occasionally drops into a “this happened, then this happened” rhythm that I suspect will become more nuanced in Lawrence’s work if she continues developing the writer’s craft — and I hope she will. Lawrence is an author with a deep-running vision and much to share.