Monday, July 09, 2007

The River Wife

I picked up Jonis Agee's Strange Angels a few years back because contemporary westerns appeal to me; this tale of Nebraskan siblings turned out to be particularly appealing since its characters listened to Dwight Yoakam practically as much as I did. (And when I reached the acknowledgements page and saw his name listed there I experienced a moment of kinship with Agee, who revealed herself to be as big a fan as I.)

So I was quick to sign up for Library Thing's Early Review program when I saw that Agee's latest, The River Wife, was one of the offerings.

I wish I could report a continued feeling of kinship, of being the bull's eye in the target audience, but my impressions on this one are decidedly mixed.

It starts well, on the courthhouse steps on the 1930 wedding day of already-pregnant 17-year-old Hedie Rails to Clement Ducharme, great-grandson of the man for whom the river town is named, and then moves to the Ducharme family home. Over the next several months on the nights that Clement receives mysterious phone calls and disappears for hours or days afterwards, Hedie turns to the row of old diaries and journals that were kept by Jacques Ducharme's first wife Annie Lark, and begins to find striking parallels between her life and that of the first "river wife."

Annie Lark's story begins in the immediate aftermath of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake on the banks of the Mississippi River. Pinned in her bed by a fallen roof beam, and abandoned by her devout family after being told that her delivery would need to come from God, 16-year-old Annie is instead rescued three days later by the type of man her father has always warned her about--a French fur trapper.

Jacques Ducharme nurses Annie back to health and her early years with him, albeit years of nomadic wandering or primitive cabin living, are idyllic. It is not until Ducharme decides to open an inn for river travelers that Annie realizes her husband is without scruple: he kills a slave trader not to free his abused captives, but to obtain them for his own purposes. Before long, Ducharme has become a full-fledged pirate, a heavy drinker and a philanderer, and while crippled Annie cannot bring herself to leave him or stop loving him, they are definitely estranged.

My problems with the book started about this time. Agee provides an elaborate set-up for a horrific death scene that I still could not find the least bit believable; and I resented the forced parallel in Hedie's portion of the story. After Annie's journals come to an end, Hedie continues to learn family history from the women who'd lived at Jacques' Landing --Omah, a freed slave turned pirate, then companion to the Ducharme family; Laura, Jacques' second wife; and Maddie, Jacques' daughter and Clement's mother--via ghostly visitations and dreams. Of course, with such a contrivance in place, it makes no sense to have Anne's ghost show Maddie (and the reader) where Jacques' treasure is stored when the novel is going to end with Hedie searching for it--she wants to hold on to Jacques' Landing for her own son, the last thing anyone who knows the family history as well as she does ought to be doing.

And no Dwight. But it did remind me of two Emmylou Harris songs: "Heaven Ain't Ready For You Yet" (a ballad about Jesse James) and "Loving the Highway Man" (a duet with Linda Ronstadt).

If your tastes run to multigenerational Southern gothic novels, you might like this one. Me, I'm hoping Agee goes back to writing realistic contemporary westerns.

4 comments:

danielle said...

I've been hearing mixed reactions to this one, too. I also liked Strange Angels, but I haven't read any of her other books.

Literary Feline said...

The description of this one interests me and so I may give it a try. I haven't read anything by this author, but if both you and Danielle, liked Strange Angels, I'll definitely have to add that one to my wish list to try.

julie said...

I'm almost finished with this novel, and I have the opposite assessment: this novel is Agee's *best* work. In her contemporary novels, the heated, detail-saturated prose style feels forced, show-off-y, and unnecessary. In this historical novel, the detailed descriptions are *essential* to the story's verisimilitude.

SFP said...

Hi Julie! Glad you commented.

It's been several years since I read Strange Angels, the only other Agee I've read, and my head is a sieve even under the best of circumstances, but I don't remember having a problem with its style.

I liked the detailed writing in The River Wife, though. What caused me mixed feelings was not buying the ghostly version of the story that Hedie learned (that stopped short of telling her where the treasure was buried even though the reader was told). And I don't believe/don't want to believe a dog would leave a fight to attack a baby the way it was contrived.