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The Independent Critic

 Book Review: "Return to the River"  

If you are an abuse survivor, there's a strong likelihood that you at least know the name Dave Pelzer.

If you are a male survivor, it's incredibly likely that Pelzer is one of those people that you looked to as you traveled your own healing journey and began constructing something resembling a healthy life.

The now 61-year-old writer/speaker first wrote "A Child Called It" in 1995. "A Child Called It" recounted Pelzer's horrific experiences with childhood abuse and would stay in the New York Times bestseller list for several years. While many authors will hold on to that claim of being a "bestseller," Pelzer practically defines what being a bestseller really means.

Pelzer would follow up "A Child Called It" with "The Lost Boy" and over the years became widely known as a writer and motivational speaker who has received a myriad of awards including the national Jefferson Award. He's spent weeks with troops overseas, fought ferocious fires, and much, much more.

With "Return to the River: Reflections on Life Choices During a Pandemic," Pelzer for the most part turns the literary lens inward and reflects on a life spent in service but often in avoidance of his own needs and the needs of his relationships. After a divorce, though not his first (the book only mentions one specifically), Pelzer returns to the area around his beloved Russian River to reflect on his life choices and, yes, those choices during the pandemic that has impacted so many of us.

As is Pelzer's trademark, "Return to the River" is both brutally honest and deeply reflective. He begins by essentially returning us to a brief revisiting of his childhood, though "Return to the River" is more focused on Pelzer's current life and how it's been impacted by those years since his childhood abuse.

While "Return to the River" turns inward, it also continues Pelzer's devotion to moving forward. As a male survivor myself, and as a male survivor who has written (though much less successfully) about my experiences, I couldn't help but reflect upon my own challenges in putting away the past and moving forward when, on some level, the past is always present and in some ways intentionally so. "Return to the River" is an example. Despite being nearly 50 years past when teachers finally intervened and Pelzer was removed by police from the family home, even Pelzer's most spiritual writing, as this is, inevitably must begin with at least some immersion in those events of the past. It's difficult to write a book about healing without at least referencing what you're healing from. Indeed, "Return to the River" is harrowing in its first chapter yet becomes something entirely different moving forward.

Of course, even while reading that harrowing chapter we know how it ends. Or, at least we know how it has ended so far. While Pelzer seldom offers great details about his adulthood mistakes, for example the failure of his marriage is largely reduced to a failure to take their usual walks and the absence of once beloved trips, there's an awareness that he's coming to terms with the impact of his past on how he has lived his life. Pelzer seems to sort of click with the insight that while living one's life for others is often celebrated, it's also in many ways a coping skill that becomes not quite as healthy at some point in the healing journey. In some ways, it becomes an avoidance of the healing that truly needs to occur.

There are times in "Return to the River" when it feels like it loses a bit of focus, though this feels consistent with Pelzer's entire journey because he's less concerned with portraying himself as an expert in healing and more concerned with honestly and transparently sharing his journey. "Return to the River" feels less polished than some of Pelzer's writing but, perhaps, this is because Pelzer himself is realizing that the semi-pristine sheen of his life has been much more like a dirt gravel road on one of his favorite trails. He's becoming aware of that lack of polish and leaning into it a little more as someone who writes, speaks, and volunteers often. At 61, Pelzer seems to be grappling with the life he's lived at an age where he's now older than his father was when he passed and within a couple years of the age when his mother passed.

In essence, "Reflection" is a word that shines brightly throughout "Return to the River." Pelzer is truly reflecting here.

For myself as a survivor, "Return to the River" is a meditative reflection on how life unfolds following abuse. While it's certainly different for everyone, "Return to the River" felt familiar to me as Pelzer looks inward and reflects on his abuse, his choices, his relationships, his successes, his failures, his sorrows, his joys, his now, and his future. There's a sense that, just perhaps, it has taken what feels like an implosion of his life for Pelzer to reach a point where moving from survivor to thriver means something different than it did 30 years ago. It's as if, perhaps, he's learning how to not see himself through this lens of public service and more simply as Dave. This is likely an exaggeration, but there are moments in "Return to the River" when it feels as if he's letting go of the final remnants of holding on to that identity of being an "it."

I doubt if "Return to the River" will be acknowledged along the lines of books like "A Child Called It," "The Lost Boy," or even his third title "A Man Named Dave." However, I can't help but think that "Return to the River" is very much the book that Pelzer needed it to be as he relaxes into himself and he celebrates a renewed sense of purpose and pats himself on the back for a life well lived.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic