In some of my recent book talks, I’ve spoken about the Missouri River and its role in my life over the years. Growing up in Denver, where our Platte River and Cherry Creek pale in comparison to this rolling behemoth, I suppose every year when I see this river, I am always taken aback by it. Its size, currents, color, smell, and feel are all nearly surreal to me. In the First Song the river is something of a character unto itself, I suppose, and it can be felt and sensed from a mile away. In the Second Song, I describe the grief of a character as the river’s tonnage lifting from its banks and pressing on his shoulders. I think it has played a similar role in my life: it’s just always there.
And yet, it’s not. I don’t live near it. I only see it on family visits, once or twice a year, usually. I don’t think I understand this river, or the plains, nearly as well as my cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents. Nor as well as a colleague and friend of mine, Jonna Gjevre, who is working on a new novel, River Rising. In just the first chapter I knew she understood the rivers of the Plains so much better than I. It’s an amazing draft.
Jonna also told me about an Indian myth she heard: that tornadoes don’t strike in the area between two rivers. There are a lot of myths about tornadoes, many of which I have grown up with. Some attribute this particular myth to the Osage (#2), and it includes the notion they don’t cross rivers. I haven’t taken the time to find a good source for this myth, and I can’t say I remember hearing that one, but one of my aunts, who lives in west Atchsion, has told me she’s seen twisters approaching the town, then make an abrupt turn to the north.
Atchison isn’t exactly at the confluence of two rivers, at least not in the way the myth purports to provide safety (Denver is, actually). Atchison lies at a great bend in the Missouri, what the 18th century French explorers called Le Grande Detour. Through it runs a small creek, the White Clay, which Lewis & Clark named 4th of July Creek when they camped there on that day in 1804. The next night, a few miles north, they camped near what they later named Independence Creek, which is much larger (I grew up calling it a “river,” in fact). My grandpa taught me to fish at this confluence, in fact, and it was the subject of our last conversation before he passed last year.
Still, I somehow believe this myth. Not as a fact. I wouldn’t hide near a river from a tornado, and though Atchison has never been hit by one (knock on wood, and it came close last year), I wouldn’t think it immune at all. But the myth speaks to the power of rivers. Their majesty, Their steadfast march in the face of the brief violence of storms, like time and mortality.
In the Second Song, which is nearly finished, and which is going to be titled Where Waters Converge, I can’t help but play with these themes of water, rivers and rain and floods, and how they are not land or wood or rock.
Because somehow this river is every river to me.