A river can be beautiful and soul-nourishing, but it can also be deep and dangerous.
Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Cottrell
5 stars out of 5
This book review seems the perfect way to celebrate Earth Day!
I was deeply moved by Saints at the River, a powerful novel about a wild, scenic river in South Carolina (fictionalized as the Tamassee River but reportedly based on the Chattooga River) that claims lives in its dangerous white water “hydraulics” and that, in this story, inspires both enemies and valiant protectors. It will stay with me a long time as I reflect on the subtle complexities and potent themes.
The story begins as 12-year-old Ruth Kowalsky wades into the Tamassee River where her family is visiting from out of state. In spite of being a strong swimmer, she loses her footing and is sucked into one of the hydraulics, where her body is trapped. The story unfolds as the family insists on temporarily damming the river to retrieve Ruth’s body, while environmentalists fight to keep the river untouched by drilling or blasting. Locals weigh in as their home is invaded by outsiders telling them what to do; their long knowledge of the river and its dangerous power is ignored. The protagonist, photojournalist Maggie Glenn, must balance the threat to her home and people with the broader perspective she has gained since moving away. A promising romance develops between Maggie and the award-winning journalist with whom she’s covering the story.
This novel was outstanding on so many levels, not the least of which was the riveting plot with its multiple layers of story action and sub-plots revolving around family and community relationships of the main characters. The book grabbed me from the first sentence and never let go, immersing me in the story, but also forcing me to see the viewpoints of all the characters, to ask myself how I would feel if I were in any of their shoes, and to remind me that answers to life’s deepest questions are rarely black and white or simple.
The vivid detail
Ron Rash’s talent for vivid detail and description was remarkable. In one scene, protagonist Maggie Glenn is remembering a day from her childhood:
“I was eight years old and we were picking blackberries on the east slope of Sassafras Mountain. We had come early, dew soaking our shoes as we sidled up land slanted as a barn roof, shiny milk pails in our hands. Morning sun brightened the mountainside as our first berries pinged the metal. Black and yellow writing spiders had cast their webs between some of the bushes, and dew beads twinkled across them like strung diamonds. My fingers purpled as my pail began slowly to fill, a soft, cushiony sound as berry fell on berry.”
Oh, I was right there picking berries with her and seeing every detail!
One character, avid environmentalist Luke Miller, spoke movingly after Ruth’s drowning to express why he felt wilderness must be preserved and protected. “…the girl’s body is the Tamassee’s now…the moment she stepped in the shallows she accepted the river on its own terms. That’s what wilderness is–nature on its terms, not ours—and there’s no middle ground. It either is or it isn’t.”
The last words of the novel—quoted below—have haunted me as I reflect on nature, its raw beauty and power, and its total disregard for human emotion.
“In the boulder-domed dark below the falls, no current slows or curves in acknowledgment of Ruth Kowalsky and Randy Moseley’s once-presence, for they are now and forever lost in the river’s vast and generous unremembering.”
Cultures that are more in tune with nature know there are lessons in its patterns, cycles, and even its apparent vagaries. This book beautifully and movingly portrayed the local residents’ knowledge and intimacy with their mountain homeland and the Tamassee River winding through it. Luke Miller’s love for the wild was as much spiritual as physical.
Yet the lessons here go far beyond a simple appreciation for nature. This story and its characters’ experiences teach us:
- that we should try to keep ourselves in the flow instead of always swimming upstream;
- that we should celebrate joys and acknowledge sorrows, but then let them go;
- that injustices, real or imagined, are poison to our happiness and peace of mind as long as they are retained; and
- that since everything is transient, we must embrace and savor every moment as it happens, then relinquish it, good or bad, to the “vast and generous unremembering.”
These are lessons worthy of a Heartspoken life.
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Photo credit: “Whitewater Rafters” by Marek Uliasz