The story of a river, the story of America | Book Review

Mary Bruno jokes that Catholic guilt drove her to write about the Passaic River, New Jersey’s dioxin-laced waterway, an EPA superfund site that has defied years of effort at cleanup.

Mary Bruno

Mary Bruno jokes that Catholic guilt drove her to write about the Passaic River, New Jersey’s dioxin-laced waterway, an EPA superfund site that has defied years of effort at cleanup.

She grew up on its shores, learning, as a girl, to fear this “slick, dark menacing presence slinking its way down to Newark Bay.”

She now lives with her partner Kate Thompson in a gracious home perched above Fern Cove on Vashon’s northwest corner, about as far away as a Jersey girl can get from the grime of the industrial Northeast.

But the Passaic River had a hold on Bruno, a place in her heart. And several years ago, when she was writing an essay about the American Southwest, she found that a paragraph she meant to pen about the Passaic River demanded a lengthier treatment. She discovered that deep within her, she was fascinated by the river of her childhood.

So Bruno, an aquatic scientist by training and writer by profession, gave in to the pull of the river. Last month, seven years later, she delivered up her 291-page, self-published book, “An American River: From Paradise to Superfund, Afloat on New Jersey’s Passaic.”

Thumbing through the proof she gave me several weeks ago, I didn’t think I’d find a book about a polluted New Jersey waterway compelling. I’m a West Coast girl. I, too, grew up with a river, but mine, the Cowlitz, is wild, gorgeous and glacier-fed.

I was wrong. Bruno writes with verve, passion and poignancy about the Passaic, a 77-mile river that begins in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, then follows a sinuous path past river towns, empty wetlands, sprawling suburbs and finally the superfund site near its mouth, where the river, Bruno writes, is “almost a culvert, corseted by bulkheads.”

But what makes her book a fascinating read is the totality of the story she tells. Yes, this is a book about a river. But it’s also a book about the forces that led to its decline and to the decline of so many corners of our country — “the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America.”

It’s a book about the people who have fought, heroically, quietly and with a patience Bruno finds moving, for the river’s health. The lawyers who pressed for its cleanup, the citizen activists —some of them New Jersey natives like Bruno — who have campaigned tirelessly for its restoration. (This is where Bruno’s Catholic guilt makes an appearance.)

It’s a book about natural history. She spent four days kayaking its length, a trip that gives a construct to the book and that provides a window into the geology and morphology of the river, as well as the sheer beauty of its upper reaches. “Shafts of sunlight poke through the canopy and dapple the riffles before us. I watch a red-bellied sapsucker scale the trunk of an eastern redbud tree.”

Finally, it’s a book about Bruno’s large, Irish-Catholic family and their relationship to the river. Her lovely, shy mother who warned her children to steer clear of it. Her hardworking father who paid it scant attention. Her brothers, sister and passel of cousins who played in a football field perched above it, never daring to touch the river’s murky blackness.

Bruno, 60, a former editor at, an irreverent environmental news organization, possesses a delightfully dark wit, and in a recent interview on the deck behind her home, she joked that the book has “a little something for everyone.” Enjoy memoirs? Interested in nature? Fascinated by history? This book has something for you.

But she’s self-deprecating. Bruno is a gifted writer with a warm and intelligent voice, and what she’s produced is both artful and insightful — a tapestry that weaves together natural history, political history, science and scenes from her childhood into a book that has depth and heft.

Perhaps most importantly, she brings the river to life. And she does so in a multi-dimensional way. Hers is not a strident, environmental treatise but a nuanced look at the tragedy of the commons. The Passaic, like rivers around the world, was its region’s lifeblood, gracing the area with beauty, providing a means of transportation and industry, drawing thousands of people to its shores — until the scales tipped and the river began to die. By the time Bruno was born, she noted, it was “a toxic canal.”

New Jerseyans, however, did not set out to destroy the Passaic. Her book illustrates the unconscious ways Americans have ignored their natural resources and the enormous toll that lack of consciousness ultimately exacts.

And yet, even at that, there’s a feeling of optimism in this book, in large part because of the beauty and resiliency Bruno discovers in this river. And the book is much about discovery.

Indeed, she said during our chat on her deck, the biggest surprise for her was how little she knew the place. “I’d never been to Great Falls,” she said, referring to river’s dramatic, 77-foot waterfall. “And yet it was 20 minutes from where I grew up. It’s kind of pathetic. But that kind of thing’s not uncommon in New Jersey.”

When she first started her research, she thought, in good New Jersey fashion, that what the river needed was a don — a river czar who could strong-arm the river back to life.

“But I realized, when I started to write, that it’s not one person who can make a difference. It’s got to come from us.”

Every river has a story, and if we knew each story, if we took the time to really see and know a place, we just might treat it differently. Her book tells the story of one river from beginning to end — its power and beauty, its tragedy and promise. The Passaic River has found a champion in Bruno. She can shed her guilt.


Mary Bruno will read from her book, “An American River,” at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, at the Vashon Bookshop.


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