With elegant prose, themes of racial reconciliation and masterful storytelling, Athol Dickson's fourth novel, RIVER RISING, is a must-read for the new year.
As the story opens, the Reverend Hale Poser poles down the Mississippi River in his ancient pirogue to the town of Pilotville, Louisiana, humming a disturbing tune and looking for clues to his heritage. The blue-eyed African American orphan has an unusual closeness to God and the ability to seemingly work miracles.
It's 1927, and slavery is only a distant memory for most folks in Pilotville. But simmering under the surface of the seemingly tranquil race relations in the small town is something as sinister as the darkest parts of the swampland. Although blacks and whites exist in a sort of harmony, they refuse to worship together. And, since 1883, twelve newborn babies have disappeared, snatched from their mothers at night while they and their little ones were sleeping. Who wants these children? And for what nefarious purposes?
Hale helps Rosa Lamont deliver her baby, which is seemingly breech (the first "miracle") and grieves with them when the baby abruptly is kidnapped. He then rouses the town, both blacks and whites, to hunt tirelessly for the infant. "He had come to find his mother, or his father, or at least a tombstone with their name --- his own name, whatever that might be --- and here he was, looking for a stranger's child instead."
In search of the newborn, Hale embarks on a dream-like journey on the tumultuous Mississippi River. Dying of thirst (with the fetid swamp water mocking him all around), he drags himself at a shore where inconceivable horrors, long thought laid to rest, await. To write more about this portion of the book would be to give away a central part of the plot, but although the plot twist here might seem to demand a suspension of belief, it is nevertheless a compelling part of the book. The looming specter of the coming flood lends atmosphere as the story itself reaches a climax.
Hale wrestles with his identity and his own awareness of who he is, who God is, and how to communicate love to those around him. His self-consciousness about the miracles he performs becomes a paradox and its own (a bit long-winded) lesson: "Then someone spoke that word miracle, and it entered his foolish head to ask for what he already had, and miracles had seemed to come, and in his heart of hearts he saw them as an outgrowth of his faith, which was of course the very death of miracles, because he had found the surest way to lose a miracle is to try and hold it in your hand."
What Dickson brings so beautifully to his narrative is a focused sense of place, in this case, Louisiana's flooded swampland, the Mississippi River and its inhabitants. In one lovely descriptive passage he writes: "Back by the river, low embankments had contained the sides of the stream, but here the waters spread out farther on each side, with the banks lower and not easy to make out beyond the rows of conical cypress trunks. With so many trees standing in the water, it became more and more difficult to determine where the main channel lay. Did it run between those tupelos yonder, or did it cut off to the left? Everything around him looked the same, yet nothing was repeated."
Readers who enjoy a good tale of suspense wrapped around thoughtful faith themes will appreciate this excellent novel from Dickson.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on January 1, 2006