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Reimagining a River

In 1944, a party of German prisoners-of-war escaped from a camp in Phoenix, armed with old maps and with the intention of stealing a boat and sailing to Mexico. When they saw the "pitiful trickle" that is the modern Gila, they began to hike downstream in despair and were soon rounded up. Their leader later complained, "I only wish the Gila really had been a river. If it has no water, why do the Americans show it on their maps?" In the spirit of Edward Abbey (and with a few of his prejudices against such things as cows), Gregory McNamee goes a long way toward answering this question in his readable, but never shallow, history.

He begins in the first person, in the high 10,000-foot-plus headwaters of the river, the forests of southern New Mexico, during a vivid September thunderstorm, then casts back into geological history to when the Gila was a sea bottom, 150 million years ago. He passes rapidly, though not superficially, through paleontology and slows down as humans arrive. His treatment of early Indian history seems comprehensive and taught me much I did not know. Entering upon the history of existing tribes, he takes for a chapter epigraph a haunting quote from an Apache elder that might stand for the whole book: "The land is always stalking people."

His coverage of the conquest is fair. If it seems at times to be critical and perhaps a little politically correct, his documented account...

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