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The Patience of a Writer
by Kathy Werner

Sullivan County Democrat, Callicoon, NY, May 2, 2003

Think "writer," and most folks conjure up the image of the lonely artist at his desk, gazing out the window and waiting for his muse to lay a metaphysical hand upon his pen, so that it can fly across the pages, in flawless, deathless prose. In reality, being a writer is a lot less romantic and a lot more like real work. For proof, look no farther than Kenoza Lake resident Joseph Freda, whose second novel, "The Patience of Rivers," has just been published by Norton.

Freda began writing the novel in 1995, and seven years later, it was ready for publication.

"I wrote the first draft longhand with pencil and paper. Then I keyed it into my Mac. Every draft went into a folder, and I gave each one a number. By the time I got to publication, I was up to Folder #17," he recalled.

Readers will find Freda's years of work were not in vain, for "The Patience of Rivers" is a well-crafted coming-of-age story. Set in a small town along the Delaware River in 1969, the novel centers on 18-year-old Nick Lauria, whose family is part owner of a campground along the river in Delaware Ford. Nick has just graduated from high school, had his birthday, and registered at his local draft board. Vietnam casts its dark shadow over his future, as he worries and wonders about what he will do with his life.

In the meantime, Nick is kept more than busy working at the campgrounds with his best friend Charlie Miles, a showboating lothario who charms most of the young ladies in Delaware Ford. Charlie's fans include the three Van Vooren sisters, who are the town heartthrobs. Nick is most interested in Darlene Van Vooren, and she seems to be returning the favor.

Charlie's dad Ted owns the campgrounds with Nick's parents, taciturn Francis and spunky, determined Kit. Ted, however, is a born hustler who schemes to spend the campgrounds money before it is even earned, leading to conflict between the adults of the story.

Nevertheless, the summer of 1969 is full of good times for Nick and Charlie, hanging out with their friends at the local bar, paddling their canoe on the river in training for the Canoe Regatta, and talking about the huge concert that is supposed to happen at Yasgur's Farm over in Bethel. As the concert draws closer, however, Nick's dad worries about the influx of concertgoers to the campgrounds, and Nick finds he has to choose between his responsibilities and the lure of the ultimate party. He also finds himself surprised by love.

For local readers, the story will feel very familiar. Those who lived through the summer of 1969 in the Delaware Valley will clearly recall the rumblings about the big concert in Bethel. Those who lived in Callicoon back then will find characters that they think they know.

Freda isn't talking about who's who in the book.

"I expected that locally a guessing game would occur," he said. "That's how fiction works."

He said that reality is the "starter dough" for a fiction writer, but that characters evolve as you continue to write.

"Who the character becomes is part of the fictional process; it doesn't matter what they start out as," he adds. "You really want to get to a point where the characters take on a life of their own and then you try to keep up and take notes as they lead you through the story."

A Canoe to Beat All Canoes

In one of the book's most memorable scenes, Nick Lauria and Charlie Miles paddle in the Long Eddy Fifteen-Mile Competition Cruising Race of the annual Upper Delaware Canoe Regatta, an event remembered fondly as a rite of summer by many area residents. Anyone who has been in that canoe race will recognize the scene, a frantic starting line with paddlers splashing and people shouting as the race is started with a shotgun blast.

Freda takes the reader with Nick and Charlie on that wild canoe race, through every rapids and around each bend to the finish line under the bridge in Delaware Ford.

Earlier in the book, we learn about the cedar-strip racing canoe that Charlie and Nick have made themselves. Freda did his research by watching Al Camp, the legendary canoe racing champ of Otego, build a cedar-strip canoe for him.

The book contains a masterfully detailed description of the canoe's construction:

"Nick and Charlie lusted after a cedar-strip boat. They were outrageously expensive; almost nobody made them commercially. But Charlie studied them at races, and that winter he sent away for a set of plans. In the spring when the weather warmed up, the boys took the plans down to Grandpa Nick’s barn, cleared a big space in the back, and set up some worklights. They had the lumber yard cut some cedar on the bandsaw, and they set up the station molds every twelve inches to form the shape of the hull. They laminated and beveled the stems at either end, set the keel strips, and then began putting the cedar in place. Charlie tacked a thin ribband of cedar to the forms at the gunwale depth, bent it toward the bow and stern stems until it formed a pleasing sheerline. Then he began setting the thin cedar strips by working off this line, stapling them to the forms. Before he glued the edges, he showed Nick how to use a long sanding block to bevel each strip.

"When they had screwed the last brass fitting into place, when the finish coat of paste wax had dried, they stood back and admired their boat. It was beautiful. Rich, gleaming cedar in the yellow light of the barn. Elegant lines, Charlie’s tight joinery. They carried it down to the river and couldn’t get over how light it was. Got in to paddle and discovered they had a different type of boat under them."

'The River Is Patient'

Freda finds the upper Delaware River valley a compelling setting for his story.

"It's a rich mine because of its dramatic physical setting. The river valley is beautiful but hard-edged and economically tough," he said. "Because of its geography, the upper Delaware wasn't good for farming and was not developed as early or as much as the other rivers that bound the Catskills: the Hudson, the Mohawk, and the Susquehanna. The Delaware was remote and it kept its beauty and mystery."

This novel "looks at how our lives are shaped by the river," he says.

In this excerpt, young Nick Lauria is building an eel weir with his grandfather:

"In these moments, Grandpa might reach down and bring up a river stone and turn it in the sunlight. The stone would be black at first, wet and polished and dripping, with a line of lime-green moss where it had nestled against the riverbottom. Underneath was a coating of earth, musty and clinging, as if the riverbottom had been unwilling to give up its protective scale. Grandpa would wash the stone in the water and then rub its surface, smooth from years of being tumbled and ground and scoured with the fine sediment near the bed of the constantly flowing water.

"'But how do they get so smooth?' Nick had wondered, holding Grandpa’s stone, pondering the effect of water running, century after century, without end, over something as sharp as red shale, as hard as bluestone. Sharp edges rounded, round edges softened, stones became smooth as eggs.

"Grandpa had taken the stone from Nick and said, 'The river is patient. It shapes everything it touches.'"

"The Patience of Rivers"
By Joseph Freda
W.W. Norton & Co., New York

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