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Mink River by Brian Doyle (audio)

mink riverMy second Brian Doyle novel (following Martin Marten, which was one of the best I read in 2015) was also outstanding. Mink River shares much of the subject matter and setting: it takes place in a rather larger small town on the Oregon coast, with a cast of delightful people and animals, all of whom make up a web and community of life and values in which human and nonhuman creatures carry equal weight. It covers an enormous swath of life experiences, truly profound in that sense, but also humble in its small physical scale: a few families and friends form the core of this novel, which is both quaint and all-encompassing.

Centrally, Worried Man and Cedar are the two members of the Department of Public Works in the fictional town of Neawanaka. Worried Man has a wife, Maplehead; a daughter, No Horses; an son-in-law, Owen; and a grandson, Daniel, whose hair forms three braids, of red and black and brown. Cedar does not know his personal history. He remembers nothing before the day Worried Man and Maplehead pulled him out of the river where he was drowning. They make a motley family circle, of which Cedar and Owen are as much a part as the other, blood relations. There is also a mean old man who beats his children, now just the younger two boys, as the elder boy and girl are adults who fish for a living. A young couple learning about each other. An upstanding policeman and his wife, who struggle to express their feelings for one another. The doctor; the old nun; and of course Moses, the crow, who the nun taught to speak and who is capable of carrying on quite complex philosophical discussions with his human friends. (Crows are very smart, you know.)

The family at the center provides a lovely blend of cultures – the indigenous Salish people represented by Worried Man and Maplehead, and the Irish, by Owen. Worried Man and his son-in-law each speak some of their people’s respective dying tongues, and both pay homage to what that represents; both make efforts to pass their knowledge along. Both cultures also offer a legacy of love of stories, which Daniel inherits. As Owen relates, while telling of his grandfather who survived the Hunger in Ireland:

You can eat stories if you have to. A good story is a very good thing to eat. If you have a true story and some good water, you’ll be all right, he would say…

Sometimes, he would tell stories about stories. The stories of children are green, he would say, and the stories of women are blue, and the stories of men are red…

You can eat an infinite number of stories. No one can ever eat too many stories.

A lovely quotation, and of course fitting for a novel about everything in life.

As well as these human cultures, like Martin Marten, this story addresses the bond between human and nonhuman cultures, as best embodied by Moses the philosopher-crow. Bears and birds and the river itself are given voices and agency, although not strictly personified: the bear is not a person at all, but a bear.

Doyle continues to exhibit spellbinding, lyrical language, and his sentences can flow and flow and flow on, as if they will eventually reach the sea. This book was very enjoyable to listen to, read by narrator David Drummond. It was a trade-off: probably I missed some nuance and detail in favor of that lovely sound. But I felt this was a worthwhile trade-off. Sound is one of Doyle’s great strengths – but so is story. He has it all. Loveable, complex, diverse characters, realistic setting, sweeping large plot, philosophy, and poetry, all in one. Absolutely recommended as ever.


Rating: 8 shared bottles of beer.

4 Responses

  1. So glad to see your good review! A librarian friend tried and tried to get me to read Mink River, and I kept her little Post-It about it on my bulletin board for over a year! Still feel guilty that I never read it, so I might try listening to it instead. Never thought to look for the audio edition, for some reason…

    • I’ve turned to audio over the years, as a way to use all those hours commuting, cleaning house or at the gym for reading time. These days, I work from home and have lost the commute. But the audio format can be great for some stories, and depending on the narrator – there are some great ones out there (I’ve blogged about some of them here, but it’s been a while; hmm). For this one, it’s a give-and-take. As I said, listening to the sounds of his language was delightful. On the other hand, I think I may have lost some level of detail as all those lovely-sounding words flowed past me. It’s not so easy to slow down and study a sentence with an audiobook as it is in print.

      • That’s true! Sometimes I stick to “easy listening” for my audio choices for that reason, but not always!

        • It’s a tough choice. I don’t know when I’d have gotten around to reading this book in print; for various reasons, my print-reading time is so, so precious and full… I may have done it a small injustice, but hopefully this is better than nothing??

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