I know the basic formula for a book review. Stay focused on the book, say what was great or not so good, briefly review characters and plot, don’t give away the whole story, and so on.
But River People by Margaret Lucas sent me spinning off in multiple directions, so I’ll throw away the formula and write this blog about it.
First, a traditional summary. The year is 1898 and in the lingering shadow of the US Civil War, people are moving west and scratching out lives, many suffering unimaginable hardships. Most of the narrative is focused on two young women/girls and the unspeakable humiliation and abuse they incur. Bridgett, age 11, is an orphan adopted by a cruel minister looking for a servant. The minister has taken a wife, 17 year-old Effie, whose function is Biblical, to bear sons.
More about how this ends later, but first, here is one way my head spun. I have often enjoyed certain kinds of “what if” conversations with friends and family. What if you could have lived at some other time and place? Male friends often choose one of the glorious empires, Greece, Rome, or the native Americans before the Europeans came. One guy is convinced that it’s all been downhill since the hunter-gatherers, and would have loved to help build Stonehenge.
Women almost never weigh-in on the topic. I’ve become aware that they know history better than I do, at least about what it was like for most women in previous times.
Back to Effie and Bridget. Together they survive with the help of an unlikely and reluctant hero who expresses the soul of the book when he says “time will come when you will have to make a choice about what you will build: coffins or arks.”
I know that quote lacks context. It’s worth reading the book to find out how it fits. And put the time and place of Effie and Bridgett’s life on the no side of the “what if” question.
Going further, my head spun with the stunning writing by the author in describing the natural world where the human stories take place. The river and the life around it achieve character status in the detail, mystery, and beauty in the way that world is painted.
Finally, I lived the first 12 years of my life in a house without modern comforts. When Lucas describes some of the day-to-day tasks of living without indoor plumbing, heating with wood fires, and cooking on a four-hole woodstove, it spun me back. Unlike Effie and Bridgett, I never went to bed hungry, thanks to capable parents.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.