Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The River You Touch by Chris Dombrowski


The River You Touch: Making a Life on Moving Water by Chris Dombrowski is a poetic memoir of parenthood, rivers, and place that’s laced with a magical appreciation for this planet we inhabit. Set primarily in Montana where Dombrowski has long made a living and a life as a fishing guide and teacher, his book is an ode to loving the place we call home. It’s a love song to living “a mindful, sustainable inhabitance on this small planet” in a world that’s moving away from nature and toward reliance on screens and devices. 

Dombrowski shares the quotidian details associated with living from paycheck to paycheck, the joys and miseries associated with being a parent, and the need to get out of oneself by going outside onto his beloved rivers or deep in the woods. He teaches us to fully enter Mary Oliver’s charge to “pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it” when he shares his attendance to detail and awe in what he observes every day as he lives life fully on the river and with his family and neighbors. 

He depicts curmudgeon, seventy-five-year-old, “not-so-nimble” poet raconteur Jim Harrison in a drifter on the “beast that is Rock Creek in runoff. Even in average flows, the water’s steep pitch and boulder gardens make for arduous rowing and during high-water events, when deadfalls suddenly loosed from logjams can form new strainers and render previously cleared channels impassable, the River in aptly named a creek can take a boat in its teeth and refuse to let go.” Later, he asks Harrison’s friend Dan, who’d spelled him on the oars, how he’d become such a fine oarsman. “Got good quick,” he deadpanned. “Because I never learned to swim.” It’s Dombrowski’s ability to make seemingly effortless switches from lyrical descriptions to wry one-liners that make this book sing. Seldom does a book so gorgeously penned leave the reader almost whiplashed with changes in tone that keep us intrigued. 

When Dombrowski renders the technicolor scene of his toddler choking on a piece of apple, it brings back the fears and release of every parent particularly in the sentences after “Lily coughs once, gasps, and begins to cry; a loud and comforting cry, like the once just after birth. Good. Cry. Keep crying. Let us know you’re alive.”  

Chris Dombrowski delivers the reader into his world and makes every detail a part of us. He does so when we’re on the river with him: “Slip of an oar blade, squeak of the oar locks. Water lapping at the hull.” He also captures us when we’re sharing bingo hour in Friendship Manor’s dining hall with his maternal grandmother Shirley. He does it again as he brings a bull trout “near enough to note a single roe-colored spot on its flank amongst countless white ones, a single planet, Mars, standing out from a sill of stars.” Chris Dombrowski takes us along on his journey and we’re better for that trek.

Summing it Up: Read The River You Touch to enter a way of living life with attention to every detail. Chris Dombrowski shares his love of life in Montana and in so doing he teaches the reader to love the people in the place they inhabit. His sharing of his journey as a fisherman, poet, teacher, husband, and father is an ebullient invitation into a life well lived. Not since Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It have I read such a powerful love letter to the American West.

Note: I had the privilege of introducing Chris Dombrowski when he read from The River You Touch at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book and of hearing him on a panel with other esteemed writers. If you have the opportunity, listen to him in person. His wisdom is contagious.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: October 11, 2022

Category: Five Stars, Gourmet, Nonfiction, Soul Food, Book Club

Author Website: https://www.cdombrowski.com/ 

What Others are Saying:

Foreword Reviews: https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-river-you-touch/ 

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/chris-dombrowski/the-river-you-touch-dombrowski/ 

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781639550630 

“In the way a fable points us toward rightness, so The River You Touch leads us to a necessary truth: that deep knowledge and love of a place shapes us in all the ways we will need to survive. With poetry, vulnerability, and crisp storytelling, Dombrowski takes us into a wild, river-thrummed Montana, and into the stormswept territory of marriage and family. It’s a journey with a guide who knows the country at a cellular level, and whose bafflement and wonder renews our own. The magic of the book is that I came away convinced that learning to love a trout, or an autumn snowfall, or a wolf crossing a river, would teach me to love a friend or a partner in pain—and so to love and be connected to all beings. Damn.”

—Peter Heller, bestselling author of The Dog Stars, The River, and The Guide

“With The River You Touch, Chris Dombrowski has established himself at the forefront of American writers of place. This beautiful, clear-eyed, tender memoir is as intimate as a love letter, brimming with wise observations on family, parenthood, home, duty, and passion. The Montana within these pages is wild and rugged, yes. But it is also as gentle as a cold stream running through your fingers or a child sleeping in your arms. I loved this book.”

—Nickolas Butler, bestselling author of Godspeed and Shotgun Lovesongs