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Following the course of an older river in an old city

The Charles: the People's River, by Max Hall. Boston: David R. Godine. 108 pp. $12.95. Threading across the continent, the rivers of America are as elemental in a study of the nation as water is in a study of the emergence of organic life. Beyond their historic role as nurturers of settlement and commerce, rivers (like other bodies of water) have become a room with a view, an urban amenity cleaned and seen again as the source of life.

Max Hall's ``The Charles: the People's River,'' is, as he says, a people's book for the people's river.

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The Charles not only serves a vast community from Hopkinton through Cambridge and Boston but is also a people-made river. Changed from salt water to fresh water, from swampy edges to groomed riverbanks, the 80-mile waterway is an intriguing subject for this slim but well-designed book.

An older river in an old city, the Charles shows its wear well and not so well in Hall's saga. When the human hand tampers with nature, the consequences are endlessly troublesome: the brown water, the flooding troubles, and so on through time reflect these manipulations.

But Hall also shows how the love inspired by the river caused its shaping into a park environment and, more recently, into a waterway that reduced pollution enough to sustain life.

Like the more ambitious ``Rivers of America'' series that summed the nation through its water network from 1937 for almost four decades, this volume has a fine vantage point. Its clarity and handsome illustrations make one wish it had amplified its environment more fully. Or, more positively, one can wish that other regions will create such narratives to sit on the widening shelf of local history.

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