One of the better books that I’ve read this summer is called River Witch. Don’t be alarmed or tricked as I was. This is not a book about an actual witch, but it is a book about an actual river. It is also about a woman who goes to a small southern island to hide out, but ends up she ends up discovering a lot about herself and makes a few friends in the process.
Many authors, when they write about the South, have a very one dimensional view of southern people and southern mentality. So many southern stories and cast in black and white, with race and class relations the center of the story. Wealthy whites and middle class blacks against the poor poverty-stricken blacks with everything divided between the wrong side of the tracks and whites-only golf courses. While these things exist, there are lots of other ways to be southern that hardly ever get explored.
This book is different. This book is green with thick river grass and dark fertile earth. I could almost smell the sea as I turned the pages. Race exists in this story, but it is handled in a multifaceted way. Maybe the author knows that in some southern families, you can’t always tell who is black or white or native because of the history of inter-racial relationships. In this story, everyone is a little bit of something, a dark haired, dark skinned native-looking man can be the brother to the red haired, freckled, fair skinned woman. And the woman with the African American features is their cousin.
The author, a white woman, didn’t go too deeply into the racial mix of the people in the story. Those who are looking for racial stereotypes will find them. The brother from above has an almost obsessive attachment to the land and had the quick reflexes and panther-like gait attributed to indigenous Americans. The red haired sister is locked into her role of mother and wife, and is looking to be her own woman. Their brown cousin is a voodoo priestess. Oh, I forgot, the brother was once married to a blond, blue eyed damsel in distress. I don’t put much stock into these stereotypes and I don’t think the author purposefully used them. In fact, it was only in the writing of this review that I even considered them.
I think the author handled race and class well in this story. So much so that for a long time she had me fooled into thinking that she was a person of color. How else could she talk about race and class and Southern-ness so openly and intelligently without being offensive? I wish she had explored race a bit more, I think she would had done a good job of showing commonalities between people of different races, especially as all the people in the story were deeply tied to the land.
The story centers on the families of the two protagonists, the family of the adult woman who hides out on the island for the summer, and the family of the young girl who she befriends while she is there. Like all families, these have their dysfunctions. Both families struggle with coming to terms with their generational histories and how to overcome past hurts so that the next generation doesn’t have to endure the same pain. At least, this story begins to release the past. The ending falls short of ending generational curses, but the author alludes that the characters will be better than they were at the beginning of the story.
There is no way to explain further without ruining the ending. Just know that if you like a story ending that feels like a conclusion (like me), you will be disappointed. And you likely won’t feel that the ending is a good one, but that should stop you from reading the story. It is compelling and entertaining. It includes pumpkins and alligators (and a voodoo priestess!!). What’s not to like?
The author also spends significant time talking about the healing power of a particular style of church music. Sometimes the music she is describing sounds like old Negro spirituals, like the kind of music that gives you goosebumps when sung in 5 part harmony. Other times, the music she is describing sounds like celtic chants. I loved her descriptions, and I loved how hearing this music was so important for the character in the story.
By far, my favorite thing about this story is the way that the author explores the relationships that young girls can have with their mothers and fathers, and how that mythology continues to play out in our adult life. This story made me consider how my life would be different if I had different relationships with my parents, and how the relationships that I do have with them has everything to do with their behavior and treatment of me and my siblings when I was a child. Children don’t forget, and grow up to be adults with grudges and unresolved hurts (mainly because it is so hard to separate how we want to be treated by our parents, and realizing that they have their own stuff to deal with. We see this play out in the lives of both protagonists.
River Witch is the first novel of Kimberly Brock. Amazon just told me that she’s a southern (and it shows in her writing.) It is clear that she loves the south, and its people. She portrays us well, our beauty and our flaws.