WHERE THE RIVER ENDS, Charles Martin’s sixth novel following his award-winning CHASING FIREFLIES, is a touching story of love and loss, set with rich detail against the backdrop of Charleston and the St. Mary’s River.
Doss Michaels is a fishing guide and starving artist trying to eke out a living in a small studio in Charleston. A chance encounter with beautiful model Abigail “Abbie” Grace Coleman leads to a 10-year blissful marriage, but when Abbie becomes terminally ill, their lives fall apart. Abbie’s once-flawless model’s physique is ravaged by cancer, and her strength drains until she’s counting her time left in weeks, if not days. On her wish list of 10 things to do before she dies is a 130-mile trip down the St. Mary’s River, and Doss promises her they will accomplish it. Despite her father’s threats (he wants her to be in the hospital), Doss and Abbie embark on the excursion. Hurricane season looms, which lends urgency and tension as the story progresses.
Martin tells his slow-paced tale well, and competently handles the difficult task of flashing back and forth in time in alternate chapters to tell the story of Doss and Abbie’s courtship and their present-day trip down the St. Mary’s. Doss and Abby meet with a fair share of hardship and challenges on their epic journey. Fans of the author will find the lavish descriptions of small towns, rivers and rural roads in WHERE THE RIVER ENDS in keeping with his eye for detail in his previous novels, including lots of precise descriptions about the St. Mary’s River. As in his past efforts, Martin incorporates subtle faith themes that flow as naturally as the currents of the river.
Difficult and sometimes frightening moments on the river are balanced with scenes incorporating unusual characters, from Robert “Bob” Porter, a former priest who shelters them, to a group of partying rednecks who offer food and song to a spitting, rodent-killing backwoodswoman.
One of the most memorable scenes is between a young Doss and his down-on-her-luck mother telling him early on about his artistic gift, which she has nurtured, and the importance of the river: “Life ain’t easy. Most the time, it’s hard. It seldom makes sense and it ain’t never wrapped up in a neat little bow. Seems like the older you get the more it trips you up, breaks you down and bloodies you…What you got inside you is…is a well that bubbles up from way down deep. It’s sweet water, too. But sometimes wells run empty. If you ever get to hurting and all you feel is ache --- you reach down and find your well empty, nothing but dust --- then you come back here…dive in and drink deeply.”
Martin’s narrative occasionally slows and meanders like the river itself (there’s a long travelogue about a trip to Europe). The ending is redemptive, even if for this reader it does tie up Doss and his father-in-law’s relationship a little too neatly.
But Martin knows how to tug at the heartstrings, and it’s a cold-hearted reader who can walk away from this one without shedding a tear. Readers of WHERE THE RIVER ENDS will come away waiting to hear more from this talented author.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011