The 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 Ducharme.
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