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Sam Alvord

But Is He a Christian?

For all but two fall semesters during the last ten years, the faculty of the Oregon Extension of Houghton College has assigned The River Why, by David James Duncan. Over the 21 years of curricular flops and successes attempting interdisciplinary, Christian liberal arts education, we have jump-started each autumn's semester-long conversation by discussing two books we have asked our incoming students to read over the summer. The lineup has included Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Theodore Roszak's Where the Wasteland Ends, Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Thoreau's Walden, a collection of Flannery O'Connor's stories, Don DeLillo's White Noise, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge, among others. Our students like most of these books, but they love The River Why.

Many immediately buy Duncan's second novel, The Brothers K, and his collection of stories and essays, River Teeth, as well. Initially, they enjoy reading an author whose ideas and images they "get" on their own without depending on a professor. They persist because Duncan's narratives offer young adult characters, like themselves, struggling to stand on their own vocationally, relationally, and spiritually.

The River Why is funny, positive, and romantic (as in: loserly but lovable hero meets totally awesome dream woman as he wanders through emerald forest glade). The main character, Gus Orviston, springs from the loins of a High-Church and highly educated Brit, Henning Hale-Orviston, a fly-fishing journalist who writes Victorian prose, and his eastern Oregon ranch-raised, Low-Church, bait-plunking, unfiltered-Camel-smoking wife and nemesis, Carolina Carper. Gus tells his story of growing up amid the continual strife of this ill-matched pair. And yet, despite the ongoing marital battles, the reader senses that Gus's parents share a deep love and that the wild idiosyncrasies of his upbringing will actually enable Gus to mature into an adult in his own right. ...

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