Sunday, July 19, 2009

What This River Keeps

For years, there’s been talk about creating a reservoir to control the flooding in the acres of river bottom land around Logjam, Indiana every spring, so few people take it seriously when the talk starts up again. But when government agents appear to survey the land and gossip abounds about deals offered and made, it becomes increasingly clear that it’s really going to happen this time.

Greg Schwhipps’ first novel, What This River Keeps, tells the story of what happens to an elderly couple, Frank and Ethel Withered, when they are faced with the inevitable loss of the farm that’s been in Ethel’s family for a hundred years. Ethel was born in the house where they still live; Frank farmed the land with her father and, eventually, by himself. He knows every inch of the river that runs behind it, where he’s fished for as long as he can remember. The impending loss is constantly in their minds, but they cannot bring themselves to speak of it.

Life was hard enough without this. Old age has forced Frank to lease his land to be farmed by someone else; Ethel is plagued with aches and pains—and sorrow. They are estranged from their son, Ollie, who lives in squalor in a broken-down trailer at the edge of their land, drunk most of the time, oblivious to any problems but his own.

What This River Keeps conveys the richness and drama of Midwestern lives that are all too often considered of little interest to serious fiction. Schwipps, recently nominated for the Glick Indiana Authors Award in Regional Fiction, grew up and still lives in small-town Indiana, and he renders its people and places honestly, respectfully and with compassion. Family is everything in this world—and what I love most about his book is how he made me see, for the first time, that land is family, too. For Frank and Ethel, to contemplate losing their land is as impossible, unbearable as contemplating losing one another.

In Schwipp’s novel, as in real life, small things help bring resolution to sorrows that can never truly be overcome. A nice, plump catfish on the line, a little girl, a dog you’d thought you’d lost running in leaps and bounds toward you. You go on, you have to. Despite all you’ve lost.

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