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A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia Hardcover – June 1, 1996

4.2 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A century ago the place where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean was a violent cauldron of churning water, all but unnavigable. But the mighty river was tamed by the building of a series of dams, including the colossal Grand Coulee, to provide cheap hydroelectric power and irrigation water. Farms bloomed in the desert; nuclear reactors mushroomed on the river bank. Today barges ply the river, and Lewiston, Idaho, is an inland port. But the negative aspects of human impact are also apparent--the depletion of salmon stocks and the destruction of Native American cultures dependent on the salmon. Washington Post journalist Harden, a Northwest native, returns to examine the changes man has wrought. Harden's enthralling account is balanced and thorough.

From Publishers Weekly

Although shorter than the Mississippi, the Columbia River, on the border between Washington and Oregon, is many times more powerful. Its energy comes from its steepness?it falls twice as far as the Mississippi in half the distance, and is what so attracted government engineers interested in producing hydroelectric power. Numerous dams, including Grand Coulee, "larger than any structure ever built in world history," transformed the river into a huge, navigable lake making Lewiston, Idaho, an unlikely seaport. "The river was killed more than sixty years ago and was reborn as plumbing." Washington Post journalist Harden goes back to his boyhood home (Moses Lake, Wash.) and examines the changes?sociological, environmental, economic and aesthetic?that the taming of this great river wrought. His wonderful account touches on the destruction of Native American cultures dependent on the river and its salmon, and on the near extinction of the salmon themselves. Also fairly portrayed are the people and industries currently dependent on both the managed river and massive government subsidies: the nuclear industry, commercial barge traffic and desert farmers irrigating with the river's water. Harden provides a sensitive and thoughtful examination of a complex situation.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 271 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (June 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393039366
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393039368
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,100,824 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Blaine Harden is an author and journalist whose most recent book is Escape From Camp 14, a New York Times and international bestseller that has been translated into 27 languages. It's the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born and raised in a North Korean prison camp to escape to the West. Escape from Camp 14 won the 2012 Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique, a French literary award, was a nonfiction finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was featured on 60 Minutes.

Blaine has completed a new book on North Korea, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, which will be published March 17, 2015. It tells the story of how Kim Il Sung grabbed power and plunged his country into war against the United States while the youngest fighter pilot in his air force played a high-risk game of deception--and escape.

Blaine contributes to the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, PBS Frontline and The Economist. A longtime foreign correspondent, he worked for The Washington Post in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as in New York and Seattle. He was also a roving national reporter for The New York Times and writer for the Times Magazine.

Blaine is also the author of A River Lost. It's about well-intentioned Americans (including the author's father) who dammed and degraded the West's greatest river, the Columbia. The New York Times called it a "hard-nosed, tough-minded, clear-eyed dispatch on the sort of contentious subject that is almost always distorted by ideology or obscured by a fog of sentiment." An updated and revised edition of A River Lost was published in 2012 to coincide with a PBS American Experience program about Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia River.

Blaine's first book, Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, was described by The Independent (London) as the "best contemporary book on Africa."

Blaine lives in Seattle with his wife Jessica and their two children, Lucinda and Arno.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on December 19, 1998
Format: Paperback
Although the author probably is personally opposed to the dams on the Columbia, his vivid and respectful profiles of the different users of the river (the slackwater barge operator, the Indian tribe that lost its source of food when the river was dammed, the irrigation farmer, the windsurfing yuppie, the father and son who work on the Hanford cleanup) make us understand that no matter how this tricky issue is resolved, there will be a human cost. His recollection of growing up in Moses Lake, a town which owes its prosperity to the dams, adds even more credibility to his account.
Harden's device of telling the story in stages, as a trip down the river, is unobtrusive and keeps things interesting. This book will make you think and it will also treat you to some gorgeous descriptions of the Columbia.
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A River Lost is about much more that just a book about the making of the Columbia River into a barge friendly irrigation system. Harden weaves autobiography, tales of everyday life, unchecked government power, the dynamic tension between the urban and rural in the Pacific Northwest. The book reveals the how the River washes over and changes, some would say corrodes, everything it touches. The heart of the book is more the river as it describes the unintended consequences that flows from good intentions and how affluence changes the political landscape from a focus on jobs to concern about the quality of life. The book should be read not as a conclusive picture of what has happened to the Columbia but as a starting point for further exploration.

The book has two weaknesses. The first is that it ignores the changes brought in the region's ecosystem when the salmon runs ceased in the upper Columbia. Millions of pounds of salmon were food not just for the Indians but for a variety of wildlife. A few words about what those changes have meant to the region's biota would have helped the reader to understand that far more than Indians were affected. The second weakness is when Harden brings contemporary politics into a tale of written with a historic perspective. Harden pointedly blames Republicans for stopping what he sees as beneficial change but puts no emphasis on how Democrats designed, sold and implemented the dams and irrigation as an beneficial scheme of social engineering. The book would have been stronger had that part been omitted. Neither party can claim to be on the side of the Gods when it comes to the Columbia.
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Format: Hardcover
Once in a great while a book comes along that is so beautifully written, with stories so well told, that the subject matter seems secondary to the writer's ability to sustain interest. For me, with little interest in the northwest (I've been there twice), this was such a book. It is from Harden's exceptional skill as a writer and narrator of stories that the Columbia River suddenly became of great interest as I turned his pages.
"A River Lost" tells the story and history of the Columbia River and the environmental, economic and aesthetic impact of daming that river in the first half of the last century. Especially interesting are the stories and points of view of those who work and live on its shores, the fate of the native indians who have lived in the region for hundreds of years and the differences in culture between the Starbucks yuppies west of the Cascades and the blue collar workers so dependant on the water and its billions in federally subsidized benefits to the east.
Highly praised in reviews by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, the Village Voice, The Seattle Times and Publishers Weekly, it is a great read for the information, for the writing, for a piece of American history.
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Format: Paperback
I grew up in the Tri-Cities and spent the first 19 years of my life living just blocks away from the Columbia River and there was a lot of information told in this book that I never knew. Harden does a wonderful job of relating the history of the Columbia River and the effects that the many dams built on the river had on the land, the people, the nation, and the economy. I thoroughly enjoyed his story and felt he handled well the many issues important to preservationists, politicians, and farmers.
I recommend this to anyone who lives in the state of Washington and is interested in man's permanent effects on this land.
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Format: Paperback
"A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia" by Blaine Harden provides an excellent insiders view to a myriad of controversial situations along the Columbia river over the past 80 years.

As the title hints, Hardens personal narrative provides details of the development and "utilization" of the Columbia River region ranging from wind surfers in the Columbia gorge to the people affected Hanford nuclear site. From the first chapter it is clear that Harden presents his information in great descriptive detail. Furthermore, along with the personal experiences Harden presents there are many historical asides that function to broaden the readers understand of the topic at hand. It is also important to know Harden not only present factual information but anecdotal viewpoints of many people on what ever topic is being discussed. This creates a well rounded feel to the book and makes gives the text a character that a text book could never achieve. For the average reader this does not mean much, but in my case "A River Lost" was used as a supplemental reading for a Pacific Northwest history class. The effort to create an interesting read was greatly appreciated, and played a key role to my engagement with the information being taught.

Although the title and overall tone of the book lead a reader to infer Harden isn't the biggest proponent of the direction the development of the Columbia's took, there is very little observable bias I could find. For the most part, Harden provides views on both sides of any situation he presents, and when dealing with economic, health, and sometimes moral situations it was great to see the information presented in a balanced fashion.

Though it is not actually part of the narrative, the book includes a very handy index allowing the reader to quickly locate a specific topic of his or her choice.
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