Nonfiction exemplar with wide appeal

Martin Doyle’s The Source

Photo of river is front cover of The Source.

After reading just the introduction to The Source, I wrote in my notebook that it “dramatically summarizes the role of rivers in language that’s very accessible and vivid. This guy writes incredibly well.”  

I’ve since read Martin Doyle’s entire book twice and my initial enthusiasm hasn’t diminished. I recommend you grab a copy to read and use in your writing courses.  Students interested in the environment, history, law, government, agriculture, and business would find value in The Source. If you’re so lucky as to have a budding journalist among your students, that person can also learn a great deal from The Source.

Why rivers matter to America

Doyle opens The Source with an explanation of why its rivers were so important to America in its first 50 years as a nation. He says “rivers are the defining feature of America” and  history played out on a landscape defined by rivers.” Doyle says although its rivers “shaped the very ideas of what America should be,” but “Americans changed their rivers.”

In the first section of The Source, Doyle shows how Federalism came to control such activities as river navigation and flood control. In the first chapter, Doyle points out the obvious fact (which I hope I’m not the only person never to have noticed) that there are no North-South rivers east of the Appalachians. Because of that, he says in the 18th and 19th centuries all east coast commerce was along rivers running West to East and thus was “conducted within single political ideologies.” Doyle also shows how the Erie Canal positioned New York to become the nation’s commercial hub and tied the northern states to the states West of the Appalachians instead of to Southern states.

From those river-bound facts, it was only a step to the War Between the States.

River-related decisions are controversial

In the first section of The Source, before they’ve read much more than 100 pages, readers have all the concepts they need to understand how its rivers were instrumental in shaping America’s history. They should certainly understand that having the federal government in charge of managing rivers—a decision that harks back to Thomas Jefferson’s basing the Army Corps of Engineers permanently at West Point to protect American commerce and to oversee “America’s river-related decisions”—means that sometimes flood control is managed or mismanaged by people who lack local knowledge of either threats or resources.

In the remaining four sections of The Source, Doyle looks at controversies that have arisen in the U.S. over use of its rivers and the different ways individuals, communities, and government bodies have chosen to use their rivers for everything from recreation to sewage disposal. What makes Doyle’s book unusual among the stacks of nonfiction books published each year is the way he brings his story down to the level at which ordinary readers—including your students—live.

Doyle puts technical topics into everyday language. He writes for interested non-experts, people who saw a story on TV or read a news article, but didn’t understand why a particular set of events happened. Even when Doyle is discussing technical topics, readers don’t need to stop on every page to look up some unfamiliar term that’s essential to understanding his message. Your students will appreciate that.

And Doyle clearly likes the people he writes about. He has a sense of humor that stops well short of ridiculing people whose opinions readers (and perhaps Doyle himself) might find a trifle wacky. Doyle directs the Water Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy solutions and is a professor of river science and policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The jacket notes for The Source don’t mention that Doyle also teaches writing, but you should mention it if you use The Source in a writing course or even if you just make it available for students to borrow.

The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers. Martin Doyle. W.W. Norton, 2018. 349 pp. including notes.  

I bought hardback copies of The Source from www.hamiltonbook.com for less than the cost of a Danielle Steele paperback. Copies were available 2022-03-17.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni