Sunday, April 1, 2018

The River Between Us by Richard Peck

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Since my middle daughter introduced us to Richard Peck about 5 years ago, we have greatly enjoyed his books. He writes with a broad range, from historical fiction to modern ghost stories to Victorian mice to slapstick. Here are our previous selections:


The River Between Us is a historical novel, set in two distinct periods of American history. The framing story is from 1916. Fifteen year old Howard takes a trip with his father and twin brothers to visit his grandparents and aunt and uncle in Grand Tower, Illinois. Old Doctor Hutchings served in the Civil War as a Union surgeon. His wife, Tilly, and her twin brother Noah (who lost an arm in the war), and Aunt Delphine make up the rest of the household living alone in a house on a ridge called the Devil’s Backbone.

During this visit, Howard listens to Tilly talk about the war and how they all came to live there together. The bulk of the book is her story. (In the audiobook version, two narrators are used: Lina Patel and Daniel Passer.)

Tilly and Noah, their mother, and their younger sister Cass lived in the house at the outset of the war. Dad had long since abandoned them, and they were considered kind of outcasts in the town. One day, soon after the war starts, two young women get off a steamboat. Delphine is pale, but with dark eyes and hair. Calinda is darker. They are from New Orleans, and speak with a French accent. For most of the book, their relationship is a mystery - as is their secret.

It is later, when Noah has joined the Union forces, and come down with a nasty illness, that Tilly and Delphine travel to Cairo (not the Egyptian one) to care for him. While there, Delphine is outed as what she is: one of the gens de couleur libre - free people of color. I was only passingly familiar with the story of these people, and what I knew mostly came from the biographical information of Alexandre Dumas. Not too many know that he was the grandson of slaves.

The gens de couleur libres were generally former slaves that had been granted freedom (although some were runaways that managed to stay free), generally because of an, ahem, arrangement. A wealthy white man would keep a pretty black woman as a mistress, maintaining her and their children in style, while living with his legitimate wife and their children. The sons were often sent to France for education - many of them stayed, although some were given property. The daughters were expected to follow the family path: find a wealthy white man to support her, and live as a mistress.

Richard Peck doesn’t sugarcoat this reality at all in this book. There is nothing graphic, of course - this is a book for children or teens - but the nature of the arrangement is all too clear.

The other thing that Peck doesn’t back away from is the reality of “passing.” Delphine can (and does) pass for white. Calinda cannot. But even Delphine is at risk of being “outed” as black. During the Jim Crow era, the “one drop” rule meant that she risked a lot, up to and including her life. Her status as free before the war mattered not. As a bigoted character gloats, once the North won the war, the gens de couleur libres would be no better than any common slave.

As in his other books, Peck is a master of the setting. Everything is brought to life with economic yet evocative writing. Peck also treats the moral dilemmas with a light touch. His books are never preachy - but they often pack a wallop. Whether it is racism, class prejudice, sexism, bullying, or sexuality, Peck shows rather than tells. At regular intervals in this book (and in most of his others), there are some devastating moments when things become all too clear. After every book, I have come away thinking about how deftly he handles situations and people. He is a simply wonderful writer, and his books are good literature, not simply good books for kids. One of the reasons that Peck’s books seem ageless is that he doesn’t ever talk down. He assumes kids can handle hard stuff. Death, mental illness, bigotry, violence, and such like are things that exist. Kids already know that. But many adults prefer to pretend they don’t. Peck knows better, and addresses stuff head on, but with compassion and realism and an optimism that isn’t foolish.

The River Between Us is an outstanding book, and one I recommend. My kids love Richard Peck too, and read (and re-read) these books and more every time we go to the library. (My boys are particularly fond of the Grandma Dowdle stories - with good reason.) Peck is getting up there in years, but continues to write - and we are glad he did.

The audiobook versions have been a bit of a mixed bag. This one was fine. Others have been less good, notably Here Lies the Librarian, which is an excellent book, but a kind of annoying narrator.

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