True Story, Issue #14

"The River of No Return" by Debra Gwartney

True Story, Issue #14

Two young mothers grapple with isolation and unforgiving terrain in this braided narrative of the American West. Trailblazing 19th century missionary Narcissa Whitman’s efforts to build a home end in tragedy, and more than a hundred years later, fifth-generation Idahoan Debra Gwartney ignores her best instincts and joins her family on an ill-advised Fourth of July rafting trip.

From "The River of No Return" by Debra Gwartney

When I learned about the Whitmans as a fourth-grade student in Idaho, the missionaries were presented to me and my classmates as Western heroes, martyrs, with Narcissa in particular celebrated as an “angel of mercy.” Recently, though, I decided to probe the notion of this “first woman of the West”—Lewis and Clark’s West, that is, and my family’s home for five generations. I wasn’t curious because I agree with Narcissa’s zealotry; I don’t. But there’s something about her time here, the ideals and values she brought with her, that drew me to her, as if by understanding this icon of the West I might be able to understand myself, both my deep affinity with this region of the country and my rub against it, a contradiction that has swirled in me since I was a child.

I like to believe that on some days, Marcus and Narcissa were aware of their own contradictions, the troubles they’d brought to the Cayuse, though they’d promised the tribe ease and support. Maybe now and again they even recognized their role in the burgeoning tensions, which would end tragically for both sides. For a while, it may have simply been a tenderness the Cayuse people felt for two-year-old Alice, who’d learned the language and played among their children and ate from their steaming pots, that allowed the mission to remain unmolested.

And here she is, Alice, stepping off the porch and heading toward the river with tin cups in her hands. She’s pulled the bent containers off a table set for Sunday supper. The hired girl, daughter of the commander of a nearby fort, had laid out the cutlery and plates and returned to the cookstove to stir soup and gaze out at nothing. Like the Whitman couple, the kitchen helper doesn’t hear Alice when she raises the cups over her head and announces that she’ll slide down the slick rye grasses on her bottom to the banks of the Walla Walla and dip water for the meal from the shallows. Narcissa and Marcus, consumed by the Bibles on their laps, might intentionally ignore her—a reminder that she isn’t to disturb her parents on God’s sacred afternoon.

BONUS! Listen to our "River of No Return" Spotify playlist while you read! Or, browse our other True Story playlists.