T. Greenwood’s latest novel isn’t exactly what one
would call “lighthearted,” and it’s not the most
straightforward story, either. There are stops and starts,
flashbacks and plot twists, bruised characters (some temporarily,
some not so temporarily) and a protagonist who fluctuates between
pissed off and emotionally blocked. But if there’s one thing
that TWO RIVERS does well, it’s that it gets a reader to
thinking about premature death, betrayal, selfishness, and through
all of it, the possibility of redemption and forgiveness.
The novel opens with a flashback. It’s the fall of 1968.
There’s a gruesome scene unfolding: three white men, one
black man begging for his life on a riverbank. We don’t
recognize the players yet, but we do know that something is about
to go terribly wrong. We also find out that Betsy Parker, the
narrator’s wife, is dead --- and we suspect that the scene at
the river has something to do with it.
Flash-forward 12 years to another grisly event. A train has
derailed in the small town of Two Rivers, Vermont, and Harper
Montgomery (the narrator) is there to sort through the wreckage and
save anyone who might be injured. Out of the rubble comes a
pregnant 15-year-old girl named Maggie, who latches herself onto
Harper and begs for shelter. Never mind that she’s the only
dark-skinned person seen in Two Rivers in eons, Harper agrees to
take her home with the caveat that she’ll continue on her
journey as soon as she can get back on her feet --- at least
that’s what his plan is (more on that later).
A chapter or so later, Greenwood takes us back again to where
the story of Harper and Betsy began, long before him being with his
raven-haired neighbor was even a possibility. She describes
Harper’s childhood crush on Betsy so flawlessly and instills
his gaze with such fervent longing that it’s nearly
impossible not to squeal in relief when Betsy finally does give
Harper the time of day.
In fact, what makes much of this book so enjoyable is
Greenwood’s knack for capturing what it feels like to be so
in love at such a young age --- even if it’s unrequited ---
when you can’t imagine breathing, let alone going to school
one more day, if the one you’re desperately in love with
doesn’t figure it out soon. Harper and Betsy’s
burgeoning friendship into romance (think star-gazing in tree
houses, sneaking into abandoned barns, lazy afternoons at the
swimming hole) feels wholly believable and a welcome break from
many of the young adult novels we read today, which are either
terribly angsty or too mawkish to stomach.
On the flipside, Greenwood also explores the fallout of feeling
trapped. Betsy’s seemingly perfect mom kills herself (she
swallows a bottle of pills) after too many years of catering to her
husband’s bowling league schedule. Harper’s mom flees
her seemingly repressive, small-town family to volunteer for SNCC.
And of course, there’s always Betsy, who wants nothing more
than to escape the confining streets of Two Rivers and move to
Paris, but who is stuck there after her father has a stroke --- and
when she gets pregnant to keep Harper out of Vietnam.
And there’s more. What starts off as a mildly complicated
plot evolves quickly into a knotty mishmash of racial tension, bad
parenting, long-held grudges and late ’60s politics, where
each character is made to sacrifice their dreams and no one gets
away unscathed. At times, the back and forth between present and
past becomes a bit discombobulating, and readers might feel an
affinity toward reading the chapters set in the ’60s as this
is where most of the action takes place. But nothing will surprise
readers more (well, at least this reader) than finding out
who Maggie really is. In addition to filling in some of the plot
holes, her “unveiling” adds depth to other characters
who might otherwise seem flat.
TWO RIVERS isn’t an easy read, but it’s a worthwhile
one. If anything, it enables us to rethink our own rules of living
--- our judgments, our fears, our resentments --- and remember just
how good it feels to forgive even in the most dreadful
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 24, 2011