past continually haunts the present in Jonis Agee's historical
novel THE RIVER WIFE, the story of four generations of women whose
lives are intertwined with charismatic, larger-than-life Jacques
The first woman to be introduced (but last chronologically) is
Hedie Ducharme, a teenaged, pregnant bride who, in 1930, comes with
her new husband Clement to live at his family's house in Missouri's
far southeastern bootheel region. The house is known as Jacques'
Landing. Estranged from her family, often left alone by her husband
for days at a time, Hedie turns to the journals she finds in the
house's library. In their pages, she discovers clues not only to
Jacques, the house's namesake, but also to the several women whose
lives were intertwined with his.
The first woman --- who stands at the spiritual and emotional heart
of the novel --- is Annie Lark, who has been trapped in the
wreckage of the devastating 1812 New Madrid Earthquake. Abandoned
by her family, nearly dead of starvation and thirst, Annie embraces
her savior and gladly joins him in a new kind of life on the
fringes of society. When Jacques decides to settle down and build a
house and an inn on land near the Mississippi, she gladly joins in
his dreams of prosperity and wealth.
Crippled for life by her injuries, soon beset by a devastating
personal tragedy and with a series of betrayals, Annie gradually
grows disillusioned with Jacques and with their marriage. After her
death, her ghostly presence seems to haunt the women who follow her
--- including a former slave, as well as Jacques' conniving second
wife and their daughter Maddie.
As Hedie reads these journals, Annie's presence also haunts her
life 100 years later. Hedie's life, from her pregnancy to her
relationship with Clement, seems to have precedents in the lives of
those women who came to Jacques' Landing before her. Surrounded by
mystery and violence, these women find solace and safety in small
magic, charms and talismans that often reappear over and over
again. Hedie reflects on these protective objects: "We have so
little that isn't too fragile to bear our living."
The novel's Ozark setting, particularly the threat of earthquakes
and the simultaneously benevolent and menacing presence of the
Mississippi River, informs much of the action. Living on the
fringes of society, Jacques and his women are freed to live an
almost lawless existence, isolated from both progress and
propriety. Southern Gothic elements are also at work in the novel,
from supernatural sightings to grotesque violence to an almost
suffocating atmosphere. Agee, for the most part, ties together the
women's stories effectively, only occasionally bogging down in
explanations of the tangled family tree. As a whole, though, the
story of Jacques' women sweeps along as relentlessly and
compellingly as the Mississippi River itself.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
The River Wife