“Book Review: The Lower Canyons”
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
A profound adventure of churning rapids and political turbulence
The Lower Canyons reads as a true example of the adventure novel in the beginning. We push down the Rio Grande on canoes and find obstacles that you would expect: raging currents, giant boulders, prickly cacti. However, the farther we go down the river, we begin to encounter political and personal issues that are all too familiar in present day United States.
Thankfully, author John Manuel decides to leave behind the outdated “everyman” archetype and instead challenges us with an array of characters woven into the flow of the river. Each character falls prey to some stereotype specific to who we are as a nation today, but there’s a promise of pushing beyond these boundaries if they’re willing to work for it.
The narrative centers around an aging river guide named Robbie Ducharme who uses his last bit of savings to get his Canyonland Adventures business off the ground and into the rapids of the Lower Canyons. Although he claims that his intentions are to seek beauty and isolation for his clients, he uses nature as an escape from much larger issues. We see this theme reflected in the decisions of other characters. Janey Hart signs up for the wilderness trip with her daughter, despite their strained relationship. Twin brother and sister, Sayda and Kelin, flea Honduras’s gang violence by way of the tumultuous Mexico/Texas border. Racist vigilante Gallagher plays hero at the river’s crossing, aiming to catch any immigrant threatening to find work in his precious country.
Due to Robbie’s extensive knowledge of the canyon’s wilderness we effortlessly learn the terminology that might otherwise go over our heads. The guide teaches his clients without patronizing them, so we never feel like we are in a biology course that drones on, nor do we feel like we are forced into this curriculum. Although the flowing river as a literary device has been used before, Manuel demonstrates that if employed correctly, it can really work. As the river strengthens, so does the connection between our characters and their missions for taking on the wilderness.
Then there exists the wonderful use of personification of nature that surrounds Robbie and the rest. “Dogwood blossoms shone in their sage, green robes and tulip poplar waved their hands.” We receive hints at the power nature will hold within the narrative, and we begin to understand it as a main character in and of itself. It’s important to remember that as the author, John Manuel is therefore the creator of nature found in his story. He knows that natural selection is key to evolution, and he flaunts this omniscience over his characters who pitifully believe they alone have the power to evolve into the person they want to be.
In The Lower Canyons, Manuel plays with stereotypes but never falls into a trap of clichés. He allows his characters to believe they have control over their canoes (and lives), but manipulates nature to have its way in the end. He displays human nature at its best and worst, and he always allows us hope that our characters will redeem themselves through their journeys. We see ourselves in the characters’ flaws and strengths and become enthralled with thoughts of how we would maneuver the river’s ebbs and flows.
The Lower Canyons delivers on its promise of sprawling adventure without sacrificing depth of characters or narrative. It smartly chooses its setting at the Mexico/Texas border not only for the beauty of its canyons but also to confront the issues of immigration and racism of present day.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Paperback: 262 pages
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