Where Rivers Change Direction

( 6 )


It is a voice that echoes off canyon walls, springs from the rush of rivers, thunders from the hooves of horses. It belongs to award-winner Mark Spragg, and it's as passionate and umcompromising as the wilderness in northwest Wyoming in which he was born: the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. Where Rivers Change Direction is a memoir of childhood spent on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming?with a family struggling against the elements and against themselves, and with the wry...

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It is a voice that echoes off canyon walls, springs from the rush of rivers, thunders from the hooves of horses. It belongs to award-winner Mark Spragg, and it's as passionate and umcompromising as the wilderness in northwest Wyoming in which he was born: the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the lower forty-eight states. Where Rivers Change Direction is a memoir of childhood spent on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming—with a family struggling against the elements and against themselves, and with the wry and wise cowboy who taught him life's most important lessons.

As the young Spragg undergoes the inexorable rites of passage that forge the heart and soul of man, he channels Peter Matthiessen and the novels of Ernest Hemingway in his truly unforgettable illuminations of the heartfelt yearnings, the unexpected wisdom, and the irrevocable truths that follow in his wake.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Wyoming, land of wind and dust, of suicides, loneliness and fierce lovemaking, of uninterrupted vistas stretching 20 miles in every direction, of hard-drinking men and fighting women, forms the backdrop to Spragg's brave and beautiful coming-of-age memoir. Readers expecting a quaint, picturesque yarn will find instead an elemental, powerful confrontation with the naked realities of living and dying. Growing up on the high Yellowstone Plateau on the state's oldest dude ranch, a family business dating back to 1898, Spragg wrangles horses for his taciturn father, trying to win his respect and approval. At age 14, Spragg shoots and mercy-kills his beloved, aged, sickly steed, whose corpse will be used as bait for bears targeted by human hunters. The teenage Spragg joins his father on hunts, an experience he recalls ruefully (he no longer hunts, he reports, and became a vegetarian for five years). With self-deprecating wryness, the author, a screenwriter and essayist, re-creates adolescent crushes and hijinx. From quotidian events--communing with horses, attending a livestock auction--he fashions existential encounters with nature, self, fear, death, God. Composed in clean, crisp prose, his loping narrative is peopled with memorable characters, like his 40-ish mentor and bunkmate, John, a smiling, battle-scarred WWII veteran, or the mediumistic Greenwich Village waiter from India who tells Spragg, then 27, about his dead infant sister, reducing him to tears. Encompassing his marriage, divorce and remarriage, the book closes with Spragg's almost unbearably poignant account of caring for his mother, dying of emphysema and housebound on an oxygen inhalator. A piercing voice from the heartland, this resonant autobiography weds the venerable Western tradition of frontier exploration of self and nature with the masculine school of writing stretching from Hemingway to Mailer. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Spragg's essays recall childhood and young adult years spent on a Wyoming dude ranch. He focuses on the realities of everyday life typical of the area—the isolation, the weather, respect for animals and nature. Spragg also addresses teenage concerns that are common themes of YA literature—earning the respect of family, experiences with the opposite sex, and trying to fit in, but feeling like an outsider. Readers from this region, or those interested in Westerns, will make the best audience for this material. It's a shame. It's a well-written book, but the protagonist is an older man, looking back on his early years—not a voice most teens are likely to identify with. They are also not likely to peruse this book and enjoy its droll humor. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Berkley/Riverhead, 283p, 21cm, 99-051649, $12.95. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Tricia Finch; Youth Services Librarian, North Port Public Library, North Port, FL, November 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 6)
Library Journal
Spragg's first book is about growing up on the country's oldest dude ranch--and much more. A rare accomplishment in "sense of place" literature, this deftly evokes life in the wide-open of Wyoming's Continental Divide. In each of these 14 essays, his direct, spacious, tangible prose vibrates with the fragile crisis and joy of a man face to face with nature and himself. (LJ 10/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Essayist and fiction writer Spragg offers 14 lyrical essays on the trials and beauties of growing up on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming in the Shoshone National Forest, the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the lower 48. He includes no index or bibliography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Cathy Madison
Spragg's spare but sensual essays will resonate not only with males and horse lovers, but also with anyone who treasures an examined life.
The Utne Reader
Ben Carlisle
If you've been dreaming of sagebrush and cantering colts but can't head west this summer, here's the next best thing: Find a spot in the shade and curl up with Mark Spragg's new book, fourteen essays about horses, guns, hard-bitten cowboys, and back breaking work, written by someone who knows.
Hope Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573228251
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 590,599
  • Age range: 18 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 10.98 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Spragg

Mark Spragg is the award-winning author of the memoir Where Rivers Change Direction, winner of the 2000 Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, and the novels The Fruit of the Stone, An Unfinished Life, and Bone Fire. His books have been translated into fifteen languages.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Spragg:

"Before I was able to support myself through my writing, I taught high school, built fences, wrangled horses, guided in the Rocky Mountains, worked on oil rigs, and shod horses to make a living. I found that while I prefer writing, I see all work as pretty much the same, and approach it with the same ethic -- come early, stay late, and focus on the details. When I'm working on the first draft of a book I'm almost a complete recluse."

"I walk for hours every day with my dog, Angus, on the prairie or in the forest. I try to notice what he notices."

"I also try to maintain a daily hour of yoga and meditation. It seems that the stories I like to tell are very shy about being heard, and it helps if I'm quiet."

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    1. Hometown:
      Cody, Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 20, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, University of Wyoming, 1974

Read an Excerpt

I don't know why I've come awake. I listen for horses. I do not hear their bells, their steps on the frost-stiffened ground. I listen harder. I listen for a bear. I listen for the huffs, snorts, the coughing of a bear come into camp. There is only the deep silence of the night. I imagine a bear standing quietly by the side of my tent. A grizzly. Waiting. Aware of me. The thought of a bear thrills like a horror film escaped from its theater. My own murder stands vividly in my imagination. The dark night grinds down hard. I imagine a bear's small, dark eyes watering and intent in the cold air. I imagine a bear's nostrils flexing, breathing in my scent, its gut grumbling, whining for the taste of me. I think of a bear's teeth, its claws. I listen for the clicking of teeth. I think of the thick, dish-shaped skull—the brain inside that skull anxious for extra prehibernation calories. I pinch my chest, the back of an arm. My body seems soft as lard. I think of myself as food. I pull my woolen watch cap more tightly against my head—over my ears and eyes—and curl my face into the throat of my sleeping bag. I am wearing long underwear—top and bottom—and socks. My jeans and shirt are rolled against my feet at the bottom of the bag. I breathe in the warm, familiar scents of my body and stained clothing—a mixture of woodsmoke, leather, and horse. I think again of the thin canvas wall of the tent. It is black inside. It is black outside. If a hungry bear stands in that blackness the smell of me could draw it against the tent wall. I think of a grizzly's nose pressed against the tent. I think of its mouth watering, scrims of thinning drool sheeting from its black lips. I pull my knees into my chest and flex and imagine my body as unalterable as a knot of steel. I nearly laugh. I've become too old for bullshit fantasies of invincibility. I am now sixteen. I know that if a bear wants me for a meal it can open and spill me as effortlessly as an actual can of beans.

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Table of Contents

In Praise of Horses 1
My Sister's Boots 23
Bones 42
Wapiti School 63
The Circusmaster 85
A Boy's Work 99
Greybull 113
John and Jack 131
Tommy Two 150
Adopting Bear 168
Wintering 185
Wind 208
Recoil 221
A Ditch Burning 239
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2004

    Unremarkable events turned to Unforgettable story

    Spragg is an extremely gifted writer. He brings the truth to the writer's cliche of bringing the reader into the life of the story. I couldn't put this down. There is nothing particularly astonishing about this man's life, but the story is so well told, with emotion and insight to humanity that few writers can put to paper. A critic remarks that a teenager could not relate to Spragg's experiences and recommends this book for adults only. I couldn't disagree more. My 13 year old son absolutely loved this book and couldn't put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2000

    Precise, honest writing of a man's life

    Mark Spragg writes so clearly, honestly, and unaffectedly. A near kin to Wallace Stegner but without professorial angst. A western version of Wendell Berry but without a larger cause. Spragg shows Zen-like understanding of a life in rugged Wyoming settings. His humor is sparse and dry, and he offers deep secrets of his own heart while escaping the reader's attempt to own him as a kindred spirit. I haven't read a better book, or a better written book, in years.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2013

    The sentences are breathtaking, you breathe the author's air, yo

    The sentences are breathtaking, you breathe the author's air, you feel his soul connect to these places. It is a excercise in masculine prose that is so exquisite that will take your breath away. It is not hard to read...it is hard to put this book down....for all the right reasons. Writers, read this book to be inspired beyond words. Readers, read this book to be transported into WHY people write...and what it's truly like when they get it completely right.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2006

    Life in Wyoming at its best.

    While reading Where Rivers Change Direction it returned me to the Wyoming that I lived in for 14 years.Mark Spragg's writing is right on the mark when it comes to the landscape and natural beauty of this great state. Having moved away from Wyoming I can return any time I want just by reading this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2002

    Read this Book

    I am not a professional reviewer but I am a Wyoming native. I love this book. If you read, read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2001

    More than memoir...

    Downriver from the Wapiti Valley, the Shoshone wends it's way below the town where I grew up in the 50's. Mark Spragg's wonderful book took me 'home' to the everlasting wind and dust of the Wyoming landscape and the people it breeds. Spragg captures its uniqueness in language as beautiful and as sparce as the countryside itself. This book is a sensitive, often humorous, rendition of what it means to be a Westerner, and a terrific read!

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