Beautiful prose, a poignant prodigal story, and vivid imagery mark this debut novel by Karen Harter, which bodes well for her future as a writer.
In Washington State, Samantha Dodd, the young adopted daughter of a judge known for his black and white decisions, lives a mostly idyllic childhood. Then rebellion strikes in her teen years, and she leaves her parents and straight-as-an-arrow sister to live life on her own terms. An early marriage, an endearing child born of a one-night stand with a man other than her husband, and abandonment leave Samantha in a condition much like the prodigal son. When a viral infection terminally weakens her heart, Samantha's love for her son, T.J., is the only thing that gives her courage to return to her family. After seven years, she's unsure of the reception she'll find. She's never felt she measured up to her older sister Lindsey (the natural child of her parents and only four months younger), although Lindsey is an admirable younger sister to her.
Water has long been used as a metaphor in fiction, and Harter compellingly sets her characters' home alongside a trout stream that serves as an image bearer for symbols of death, resurrection, reconciliation, and coming home. (What great questions in life can't be answered by fly fishing? It was good enough for David James Duncan....)
Harter also knows how to evoke a specific sense of place. I was hooked (pardon the pun) by this early paragraph:
"My world was twelve acres framed by a wadable creek in a gully to the east, the Stillaguamish River to the south, a stand of poplars lining our long driveway on the west and Hartles Road to the north. Our river came like a train from far away. It slowed as it rounded the bend to pass our house on its way to somewhere --- the ocean, I guessed, and I believed as children do that my life, like the river, was destined to flow as easily around each bend."
I also appreciated how she intertwined her relationship with her father, the Judge, and the river. "...Strange as this may seem, the river was nothing without my father. The two had been to me somehow one and the same." Or this: "His eyes sometimes glimmered like sun-dappled ripples, though they could quickly take on the hard gray of angry winter water. Like how I felt about the river, I loved and feared him. It was a healthy fear, I suppose; maybe respect is a better word, knowing that though he may appear placid on the surface, there was a powerful current pushing just below."
Harter's prose is vivid and fresh. I particularly liked the lines: "The Judge's opinions were as solid as boulders and God help the man or child that stood in their path when they rolled. As a teenager I was crushed by them. Flattened out like Wile E. Coyote, only I didn't spring back so fast." One of the few missteps is when she compares a rainy day to Samantha's mood, a cliché in fiction writing.
If readers have any quibble with this book, it will be with the ending, which seems a little contrived and unbelievable. Why would they have Christmas at the Judge's house, when the threat of danger was so obvious? And the plot twist that gives Samantha her new heart is a little tough to swallow. However, I admit it caught me completely by surprise. (No, I'm not going to say another word!) If you're willing to suspend disbelief here, you'll find the conclusion poignant.
Readers will appreciate this enjoyable story's themes of love, forgiveness, sacrifice and reconciliation, and will look forward to the next novel by this promising author.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on March 21, 2006