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Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 120 pages
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Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart is a well imagined autobiography of the Schuylkill River (Hidden Creek) near Philadelphia told from the point of view of the river.  A hopeful river intrigued by the humans that come upon her, collecting those forgotten items, and enjoying the natural wonders of frozen surfaces and fishing.  Coupled with the poetic narrative are notes on the time period and the major events near and around the river, including the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  As the industrial revolution takes hold, the river finds that the humans who have been intrigued by her beauty and hidden secrets and those that have piqued her interest are busy moving through their lives with little thought to her, dumping their waste, chemicals, animal parts, and more into her flowing waters.

“Imagine taking a needle to the point of blood on your palm.  Imagine drawing that needle around and around, leaning in on it, forcing an edge, rearing at the creases and the lifelines, the ridges and slightest hills that forecast your happiness.  Imagine the skin giving way.

That’s skating.”  (Page 32)

There are moments of fear, curiosity, and hatred.  “How is it that I became the quickest route to your confession–the door you close to those parts of yourself that you hope no one will see?  Call me what you’ve made me, which is a grave.”  (page 87)  She’s a river (dare I call her Flo) who ages beyond her years thanks to the careless dumping and even direct interference as dams are built to harness power.  Kephart melds her prose with photography, poetry, and factual notations.  There’s a sense of nostalgia in Flow that breathes life into history, ensuring readers sense the culture of the time period, the struggles of the people, and their dreams.  The river just wants to live, but she remains curious about her own environment, curious about how the people use and abuse her, and disheartened when it seems as though she has been forgotten or replaced.

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River by Beth Kephart is a historical look at the river and Philadelphia, handled with a careful and creative hand.  The river comes alive, just like Philadelphia’s people and her history.  Readers will learn a great deal about the river, the industrial revolution, and our nation’s history.  The Schuylkill River is no longer the hidden gem of Pennsylvania.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 10 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog.  Here’s my most recent interview with her too.

My other Beth Kephart reviews:

  • I think it’s neat that she personifies the river. Sounds like an interesting book!

    • I wonder if this could count for the revolutionary challenge, since it does have quite a bit about it and Washington’s campaign in it. But it doesn’t necessarily focus on that.