Saints at the River
Ron Rash (Adult Fiction)
It was during Easter break when twelve-year-old Ruth Kowalsky lost her life to the Tamassee River. One minute Ruth’s wading to the river’s middle to place one foot on the South Carolina side and the other on the Georgia side and the next minute she’s pulled downstream—her submerged body forever trapped in a deep eddy. Soon, Ruth’s drowning becomes both a local tragedy and the center of an environmental debate with long-reaching political ties. Caught in the middle is photographer Maggie Glenn who returns to her Oconee County hometown to cover this story for her newspaper. Maggie must not only choose between grieving out-of-towners and her beloved river, but she must also confront events from her past that has driven a deep chasm between her and her estranged father.
Ron Rash provides a compelling story and serves up the question, “Should human life take precedence over environmental sanctity?” When I came upon this book, I found myself a bit skeptical of the story’s premise. How can you build a meaningful and suspenseful story around environmental activists waging war on grieving parents without making either side look unfeeling or unsympathetic? But I had unfairly underestimated Mr. Rash who takes great care in presenting both sides of this debate and does so with passion, honesty, and neutrality. He gives equal time to both positions and allows his reader to make up his or her own mind without fear of judgement or reprisal…unlike our protagonist, Maggie, who must bear and witness the full brunt of her choice. Although the reader doesn’t get a chance to know young Ruth Kowalsky, her tragic death serves as a catalyst to understanding the motivations of her father, Herb, as well as the actions of Maggie’s own father during her childhood. Both men are alike in their desperate search for redemption and closure.
Although I didn’t quite connect with Maggie and had little interest in her unfortunate and turbulent backstory, I was drawn to the Kowalsky’s plight and to the small South Carolina town caught in the middle of a bitter legal battle to protect its most precious natural resource. Saints at the River is a cautionary tale of political influence, government overreach, and the delicate balance between life and the law. Although there are many interesting characters in this book, the central figure is undoubtedly the Tamassee River. It is a power onto itself and its water courses through this story like blood through veins. It is to be admired, respected, protected, and—most importantly—never underestimated as history professor Douglas Brinkley once wrote, “Thus did nature triumph over man’s attempt to conquer it. Nature always wins.”
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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