Saints at the River by Ron Rash

Saints At The River

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.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Wishing Trees by John Shors

The Wishing Trees

The Wishing Trees  

John Shors (Adult Fiction)

Kate McCray died ten months ago, but her absence remains as fresh and painful for her husband, Ian, and their ten-year-old daughter, Mattie as the day she slipped away from them.  Upon her death, Kate leaves a letter for Ian expressing her dying wish: “Be happy.  Learn to laugh again.  To joke.  To wrestle together like you once did.  Learn to be free again.”  To achieve these things, Kate wants Ian to take Mattie on the trip the two of them intended to make to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary.  A trip across Asia that would allow Mattie to experience what her parents once shared in so many diverse and wondrous countries: Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.  But can Ian do it?  Can he revisit a past full of memories of his wife in order to forge a future without her?

John Shors delivers a touching and bittersweet story of a husband and daughter embarking on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and enlightenment.  Although deceased, Kate remains a prominent presence and central figure throughout the story.  She has left handwritten notes inside twelve film canisters—six each for Ian and Mattie—which are to be opened upon the pair’s arrival in each country.  Kate’s words of love and encouragement are a constant reminder of the tender and altruistic person so tragically torn from our main characters.  Her careful planning of this trip, despite her weakened state, and her desire for her family to move on without her is heartbreaking in its selflessness and hopeful in its intent.  What’s most striking is Kate’s constant encouragement for her loved ones to make a positive difference in the world.  In one of her letters to Mattie, Kate writes of Buddha, “Do you know what Buddha says about happiness?  He said, ‘Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared.’”  With each canister that is opened and with each note that is read, we can easily understand how indomitable a task it is for Ian and Mattie to emotionally recover from their loss.

The Wishing Trees is a beautifully written love letter to anyone who has ever lost a love and hungers for a sign—any sign—that they’re still with us.  That they still see us.  That they still remember us.   It’s also a story about the power of kindness and the extraordinary healing powers in doing good.  Numerous books have been written on research connecting helping others to health benefits or, simply stated, doing good is good for you.  Perhaps Kate knew this all the time or perhaps she remembered an Indian saying during her travels, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman (YA Historical Fiction)

Alchemy and Meggy Swann

Alchemy and Meggy Swann   

Karen Cushman (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” – Carl Jung

After the death of her gran, Margaret “Meggy” Swann is carted from Millford Village to London and unceremoniously deposited at the doorstep of her father, Master Ambrose, the local alchemist.  Meggy is none too pleased with her new home: heads mounted on sticks and placed on a bridge, the smell of fish and sewage everywhere, and streets slick and slippery from horse droppings.  Ye toads and vipers!  What kind of place IS this London?  Between a mother who was pleased to see the back of her and a father who assumes she is a beggar upon their first introduction, Meggy has found herself in a rather unenviable position.  She is crippled, penniless, and friendless…unless you count her goose, Louise.  But Meggy is stronger than she thinks and with the help of a cooper, a printer, and a rather smitten player, she’ll not only save a life, but she’ll manage to save a soul as well.

From her first utterance of, “Ye toads and vipers”, I fell in love with Meggy Swann.  She is scrappy, sassy, resourceful, impish, loyal, and brave.  She is disabled (suffering from what we would today recognize as bilateral hip dysplasia), but doesn’t seek sympathy, pity, or charity.  In a time when deformity and illness were viewed as a direct judgment from God, it would have been easy for Meggy to become bitter from the taunts and jeers unmercifully thrown at her by villagers both young and old alike.  While in Millford Village, she was able to stay somewhat isolated and protected within her mother’s alehouse; however, in London her lameness is on full display and it is at this moment when we see Meggy’s pluck and spirit begin to emerge.  No longer will she be the meek victim of unfair slurs and prejudices.  While her father is busy transforming metals in his laboratorium, Meggy is experiencing her own transformation into a strong, proud, and confident young woman who refuses to let her circumstances define or limit her.

This story is set in 1573 London and Cushman successfully transports readers to the Elizabethan Era through her usage of period-appropriate language.  This requires having to adjust to the frequent occurrences of words such as naught (nothing), certes (certainly), mayhap (perhaps), belike (very likely), and sooth (truth), but given the age this book targets (12 years and above), the acclimation should be quick and painless.

There are so many lessons that one could glean from this book, but perhaps the most poignant was one that Meggy learned from a flightless goose: “Even Louise had given the girl something, the knowledge that one did not have to be perfect to be beauteous.”  And that is something worth remembering, be ye toad or viper.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com