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"An American River": Turn the Pages for a Ride Down the Passaic

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Coming into Paterson, October 2006 (Mary Bruno out front in the orange kayak) Credit: Carl Alderson    
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Great Falls, October 2006 Credit: Mary Bruno
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 Great Falls 2008 Credit: Mary Bruno    
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PATERSON, NJ – Author Mary Bruno learned something about Paterson when she took a kayak tour of the Passaic River.

“The people in Little Falls and Garfield seemed to ignore us,” Bruno said. “They called security in Little Falls, at the mill. In Garfield, they called the cops. But in Paterson, I felt like we were stars. Young people, older people, three teenage girls stopped and gawked at us, asked where we were going. Community curiosity and delight that we were on this adventure … it made me love Paterson. They were fans. They thought we were so cool. All different races, colors … It was a delightful experience.”

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The kayak trip provided the backdrop for Bruno newly-published book, “An American River: From Paradise to Superfund, Afloat on New Jersey's Passaic.” 

Part natural history, part personal history, part adventure story, the book takes down the length of the river. Paterson figures prominently. In fact, it gets its own chapter.

Growing up in North Arlington, Bruno had a “fear of the river” which she felt always seemed odd.

“I loved water,” she said. “I always have.” But on some level, she wondered how the Passaic got the way it did? How a river once celebrated its beauty became so repelling?

But when writing an essay about the American South West in 2003, the Passaic River made an appearance in Mary Bruno’s article. “Almost high-jacked the essay,” she said. The more she researched the Passaic, the more astonished she became.

Always moved by nature, Bruno feels she always had been able to find nature in New Jersey in places she thought it had been banished from. The Passaic, with its reputation for polluted Superfund sites, was such a place.

Writing the book was powerful and emotional experience for Bruno. When her writing journey began, she realized, “There’s a lot of hope. Honor the loss, own the sadness, but feel the hopeful that this wonderful piece of nature isn’t gone. People will notice it again.”

Her chapter on the Great Falls of Paterson is almost 40 pages long, yet before writing her book, Bruno didn’t even know the Falls were there. “Nobody ever talked about it. No one ever said, ‘The Falls were so cool.’”

Bruno refers to The Falls as a beautiful place. “It’s haunting. You can almost hear the hum of industry and success.” And this is how she feels people should think when thinking of Paterson.

 “New Jersey has a reputation,” she said. “People say, ‘Joisey.’ There’s the mob … this toxic land. It’s very frustrating. That’s not all of New Jersey. Part of this book, for me, was a love letter to New Jersey and a bit of PR campaign for the state. It has a reputation it doesn’t deserve.”

Bruno hopes that her book will bring encouragement to others to have something done with the river. “We need some czar that’s going to go in there and fix it. It has to come from us. Remember the river is there … fall in love with it.”

Bruno makes suggestions as to how everyone can do their part: “Make sure your trash is secured so that when it rains it doesn’t go into the river.”

While researching her book, Bruno consulted Paterson historian, Nick Sunday, who grew up in Paterson and studied its history for the past 20 years. Sunday helped Bruno write her chapter on the Great Falls.

“She covered a lot of ground,” said Sunday. “She did a great job; a very good portrait. There are people who are reluctant to say there’s a mess there and why the town collapsed. But she says all this. I’m very grateful to her for that. It’s good to get your views out. We destroyed the ecology for the Passaic River. There’s very little talk of restoring the river after what industrialization destroyed.”

Continuing his praise for Bruno’s hard-hitting, critical book, Sunday said, “We really have devastated America the Beautiful. It’s just destroyed.”

Mary Bruno will be reading from “An American River” at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair on Thursday, October 18, 7 to 8 p.m.

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