My Literary Dream Home: The River Why

My Literary Dream Home: The River Why

Tess Wilson
Sep 24, 2012

As the days get shorter and temperatures drop, I long to hunker down in a cozy cabin full of wood and wool and candlelight. But finding that impossible, the next best thing is to throw myself into a book that takes place in a cozy cabin on a river. David James Duncan's The River Why is a favorite autumn read, full of wood and candlelight, but also a fascinating character in search of meaning.

Our hero Gus has been a fishing-obsessed "fishing genius" his whole life, and moves to a little cabin on a river so he can fish & fish & fish...

"The river side of the road had never been logged. There were a few tremendous spruces, small stands of alder, clumps of hazelnut, tree-sized ferns, fern-sized wildflowers, head-high salal, impenetrable thickets of devil's club, and, surrounding my cabin, a dense grove of cedars- huge, solemn trees with long drooping branches and a sweet smell like solitude itself. The cabin was made of fir logs squared off Sandinavian-style and joined so tightly that I could light a cooking fire on a cold winter's morning, fish all day, and find it still cozy when I came home at dark. There was only one room, but it was big- twenty-two by twenty-eight feet- with the kind of high beamed-and-jointed ceiling that made you want to just sit back and study the way it all fit together. The bedroom was an open loft above the kitchen; the kitchen was the table and chairs, stove, waterheater and sink; the refrigerator was a stone-walled cellar reached through a trap-door in the kitchen floor; the bathroom was a partitioned-off corner so small you had to stand in the shower to take aim at the toilet, and if you bumped the shower walls they boomed like a kettledrum- so I took to voiding my bladder in the devil's club outside.

The cabin was dark, thanks to the grove, but some gloom-oppressed occupant had cut one four-by-four window in the southwall overlooking the river: I set up my fly-tying desk next to it, partly for light, partly so if something swirled as I worked I could be out there with a loaded flyrod in seconds. I didn't miss electricity at all- even preferred the absence of it- but H20 [his father], convinced that I'd go blind tying flies by candlelight, left me three Coleman camp lanterns that blazed about as subtly as search lights, and Ma, appalled by the lack of racket, bequeathed me a big battery-operated AM/FM radio; both earned an early retirement on a remote shelf."

After a traumatic turn of events, Gus finds himself a changed man, no longer able to think about fishing and only fishing every minute of the day. His misery and loneliness lead him to seek out, for the first time in his life, the company of other people. This change of heart not only affects him, but his home:

"When I returned to my cabin it had undergone a subtle transformation: I'd left behind a solitary structure on a lonely river; I'd returned to the home of someone the locals called "Gus the Fisherman"- a home just up the road from Ernie and Emma's, not far from the candle-makers, Crawdad Benson, Eaton's Landing, the "Fogged Inn Cafe," and all those folks that made the valley and town a valley and town full of folks. I had "saved the life o' that corpse outta the river"; that corpse was me. And with my de-fished eyes I really saw my home: I couldn't get over the sight and smell of it- the almost drinkable gold beams filtering through green glowing cedar, the thickness of the moss, the clarity of the river, the lupine, paintbrush, and daisies in the clearings, the song of birds and chippiting of chipmunks, the sweet watery fragrance of the glade... I spent the afternoon purging the place of the crasser vestiges of the dead me, introducing tin cans of wildflowers, Steve's candles, Bill Bob's rock and junk and dreefee collection, pinecones, watersculpted sticks, and a bright red mushroom, in place of strewn fishing gear. As I worked I let the radio blare for the first time- and on a band Bill Bob had selected, where rock and roll from Seattle, baseball from Boise, Gospel from Medford and static from the stratosphere battled for my ear."
-The River Why by David James Duncan 1983

It's a wonderful book, and a perfect gift if the nature- or fishing-lover in your life has a birthday coming up. In fact, I recently considered giving it to someone, only to discover it on his bookshelf, a gift from me 10 years ago. It's a classic.

(Image: Rachael Grad/Rick's Retro Cabin & Reclusive Georgian Bay Island)

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