It's the first Wicked Cool Overlooked Books of the new year! (In case you need a refresher as to why we do this, Chasing Ray will remind you.)
I am not, generally, a fan of novels about the Civil War. I am of the opinion that most books treat the subject simplistically, unfairly vilifying certain persons while equally unfairly deifying others. Throw in someone saying "Yassuh, mastuh," and a few belles in tragically faded frocks, and you've got Gone With the Wind, and me puking.
I wouldn't have picked up Richard Peck's The River Between Us, except that I respect his writing tremendously, enough to read anything of his. And I'm glad I did.
Far from being the usual tale of the fragile-but-beautiful-belle, this history is framed within a narrative told in the voice of fifteen year old Howard Hutchings, who is, together with his father and brother, on a journey to see family that they've never met. Howard's story is itself textured and layered, and doesn't feel tacked onto the main story, which takes place in a small Southern town in 1861. I love Peck's talent with setting and pace, and his imaginative detail of "the town, steeping like tea in the deep summer damp" (p12). It's a quiet place where nothing much happens until a steamboat from New Orleans arrives in town and Delphine and Calinda Duval depart the boat seeking a safer place to stay. They take a room in the home of Tilly Pruitt and forever change that family's lives.
Much is made of the contrasts between Delphine and the Pruitts. Delphine is lavish with scent; the Pruitts' use plain soap and water, sparingly. Jewelry, money, even talk is wealth that she shares freely about. p.47 "We weren't used to talk at the table, and the kitchen rang with hers." The women in this family are so different, there seems no possible way that they can ever come together in any meaningful fashion -- and yet they do. The Civil War interrupts so much of their lives that coming together is the only way they survive.
Because this is a woman's perspective on war, this is a story that has moments of heartbreak, and rather than being fragile, the women have to be tough and resourceful to survive. However, there are droll, funny moments too that are pure Peck, and best of all, nobody stands around saying "the South will rise again." For another perspective on a piece of American history, pick this one up.