Winner of the 2023 National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography
The riveting tale of two pioneering botanists and their historic boat trip down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon.
In the summer of 1938, botanists Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter set off to run the Colorado River, accompanied by an ambitious and entrepreneurial expedition leader, a zoologist, and two amateur boatmen. With its churning waters and treacherous boulders, the Colorado was famed as the most dangerous river in the world. Journalists and veteran river runners boldly proclaimed that the motley crew would never make it out alive. But for Clover and Jotter, the expedition held a tantalizing appeal: no one had yet surveyed the plant life of the Grand Canyon, and they were determined to be the first.
Through the vibrant letters and diaries of the two women, science journalist Melissa L. Sevigny traces their daring forty-three-day journey down the river, during which they meticulously cataloged the thorny plants that thrived in the Grand Canyon’s secret nooks and crannies. Along the way, they chased a runaway boat, ran the river’s most fearsome rapids, and turned the harshest critic of female river runners into an ally. Clover and Jotter’s plant list, including four new cactus species, would one day become vital for efforts to protect and restore the river ecosystem.
Brave the Wild River is a spellbinding adventure of two women who risked their lives to make an unprecedented botanical survey of a defining landscape in the American West, at a time when human influences had begun to change it forever.
About the Author
Melissa L. Sevigny is a science journalist at KNAU (Arizona Public Radio). She has worked in water policy, sustainable agriculture, and space exploration, and is the author of Under Desert Skies and Mythical River. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
[A] cascade of a story, colored by sun and water and driven by courage and determination.
— Deborah Blum - New York Times Book Review
A page-turner in the adventure genre that also conveys rich detail about plant ecology of the US Southwest, sexism in science, and ethical issues in environmental science, the book is a marvelous and informative read.
— Barbara J. King - Science
Thrilling, expertly paced, warmhearted, [Brave the Wild River is] at once an adventure tale and a dual biography of two unusually determined, capable heroines…[L]yrical and lovely.
— Peter Fish - San Francisco Chronicle
Gripping…A vivid history of two female botanists who set off in 1938 to explore the Grand Canyon.
— People Magazine
Brave the Wild River…highlights the little-known contributions two women made to our knowledge about the Southwest ecology. And it pays homage to a pair of scientists far ahead of their time.
— Anita Snow - Associated Press
[Melissa L. Sevigny] writes beautifully about the geology and botany of the Grand Canyon and the challenges Clover and Jotter met as they collected and preserved the extraordinary region’s plants…[An] artful account.
— Ann Fabian - National Book Review
Sweeps up the reader in its seamless weaving of histories with a geographically rich narrative…[A] brilliant and elegantly written book.
— Geri Lipschultz - Terrain.org
A beautiful tribute to two pioneering women of science.
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[A] marvelous history…Drawing on Clover and Jotter’s journals and letters, Sevigny recreates their expedition in novelistic detail, producing a narrative as propulsive as the current of the Colorado. Readers will be swept away.
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[Melissa L. Sevigny is] a spellbinding writer of informed and ardent attentiveness, wit, and empathy…A breath-catching, enlightening, and significant work of scientific, environmental, and women's history.
— Booklist (starred review)
Brave the Wild River is everything a book should be, at once a biography, a thriller, and a vivid piece of science writing. In Melissa L. Sevigny’s breathtaking prose, the legendary Grand Canyon comes alive in honey mesquite, riparian forests, and desert blooms. Sevigny defines the wild as a ‘place that changes us,’ and she has written a book that is destined to permanently alter the way you see the world.
— Nathalia Holt, best-selling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls
Melissa L. Sevigny unfurls one of the finest river stories of the Grand Canyon while presenting a long overdue, richly deserved, and beautifully written tribute to a pair of legendary botanists who peeled back the petals of a mysterious, intoxicating landscape and made it blossom with new knowledge and wonder.
— Kevin Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile
Whip-smart, funny, meticulously researched, and beautifully written, Brave the Wild River is required reading for anyone interested in the Grand Canyon, river running, or the ingenuity of plants. It examines the challenges women in science faced in the 1930s—and still face today—but above all it’s a story about what it means to risk everything, to follow your heart into the great unknown.
— Ash Davidson, author of Damnation Spring
Melissa Sevigny embroiders the Grand Canyon with plants who become as much characters as the people. She tells a ripping story, full of heart and grit, and a river readers will take in the teeth.
— Craig Childs, author of Atlas of a Lost World
Melissa Sevigny, a rising star in science writing, has written a captivating book that journeys through the American West in company of two intrepid women botanists. This is a book celebrating women in science, particularly those adventurers who defied the bounds imposed on their gender to encounter the natural world in its wild power and beauty. This book redefines the Grand Canyon not as testing ground for masculine virility but as proving ground for women’s tenacity and intelligence. Brave the Wild River, filled with adventure and fresh seeing, makes a superb contribution to literature of the American West.
— Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of A Woven World
Telling the story of Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter’s expedition in vivid, riveting detail, Melissa L. Sevigny makes the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon ecosystem come alive. At a time when the Colorado River is at a crisis point, Brave the Wild River provides a captivating narrative of Clover and Jotter’s important scientific contributions along with fascinating historical details.
— Christie Aschwanden, best-selling author of Good to Go
What a joy to venture down the canyons with two new heroines so ahead of their time. A remarkable tale masterfully told. I loved every page.
— Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix