Review: Lost Without the River: A Memoir by Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic

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lost without the river cover - farm house with big skyBig Stone City looms large in the memory of Barbara Hoffbeck Scolbic, author of Lost Without the River: A Memoir (She Writes Press, April 2019). It is the place of her birth, childhood and earliest remembrances, a place wrapped in the hazy glow of memories, partially recalled in impressionistic scenes.

The youngest of seven children, Scoblic seems to mourn what time has erased, especially the family unit, the ways of the past, the death of her parents and the drastic changes to the town and to the land itself in the seven sections that comprise the memoir.

The first of these, “Portrait of a Farm,” provides a sense of place. “The surface of big Stone Lake 966 feet above sea level, is the lowest point of elevation in South Dakota…Ours was probably the first wood-framed house in the Big Stone City area. It dates to 1873. In that year there were sod shanties and log cabins in the settlement that was to be our hometown.”

Even after Scolbic joins the Peace Corps, moves throughout the country, and eventually settles in Manhattan where she raises her own family, the farm remains at the center of the memoir, mostly as it existed in the first half of the last century. The effects and consequences of the Depression and World War II are further compounded by floods and drought, increasing the misery for the residents of Big Stone City.

Told in a series of very short chapters, Scolbic’s family members are lightly sketched, primarily through anecdotes rather than episodes. One example involves her older brother Bob as she helps him capture a snapping turtle. “I followed Bob’s silent directions and in short, slow synchronized steps, the two of us made our way toward it. Now, each with a hand on a side of the opening of the gunny sack, we advanced until we were right behind it. I pushed my fear down; I was aware that the turtle’s strong jaws could snap off a small hand. Then when Bob motioned, we pounced forward and slung the bag over it.”

Most of her other siblings are given much less mention, in some cases little more than a paragraph. Precious little is known about Helen, Patt, John, or Bill, though Scolbic’s oldest sister is the exception. From birth, Dorothy’s world is confined to a crib, the victim of a botched forceps delivery at the hands of an alcoholic doctor.

Dorothy and the author escape being farmed out to more prosperous family members, so the tenderness she feels for her sister falls just short of poignancy, leaving the reader with renewed understanding about just how harsh agrarian life was less than 100 years ago.

At least three poems are included as part of this memoir and their titles convey the predominant feelings that are the undercurrent of this book. “The Mourning Dove,” are the musings of a small child, “Lost” is a memorial to her mother but “Dirt, Revisited” may inadvertently summarize Scollbic’s ambivalence about her early life:

“Cleaning dirt from under my fingernails

before dressing for the prom….

Damned dirt

Blessed dirt.”

Scolbic returns to Big Stone City on several occasions but mostly alone, notably leaving her children at home in New York. In the end, her visits are limited to the cemetery, where once again, memories resurface, and as she records them in this memoir, what seems like an unspoken promise to record them is finally kept.  “In my quest, I’ve asked questions, listened, and taken notes; returned and researched; dreamed and remembered. And now, at last, the stories are written.”

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