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A Novel

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On Sale: July 17, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-630-6
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On Sale: July 17, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-4159-4182-9
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From acclaimed novelist Jonis Agee, whom The New York Times Book Review called “a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape,” The River Wife is a sweeping, panoramic story that ranges from the New Madrid earthquake of 1811 through the Civil War to the bootlegging days of the 1930s.

When the earthquake brings Annie Lark’s Missouri house down on top of her, she finds herself pinned under the massive roof beam, facing certain death. Rescued by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, Annie learns to love the strong, brooding man and resolves to live out her days as his “River Wife.”

More than a century later, in 1930, Hedie Rails comes to Jacques’ Landing to marry Clement Ducharme, a direct descendant of the fur trapper and river pirate, and the young couple begin their life together in the very house Jacques built for Annie so long ago. When, night after late night, mysterious phone calls take Clement from their home, a pregnant Hedie finds comfort in Annie’s leather-bound journals. But as she reads of the sinister dealings and horrendous misunderstandings that spelled out tragedy for the rescued bride, Hedie fears that her own life is paralleling Annie’s, and that history is repeating itself with Jacques’ kin.

Among the family’s papers, Hedie encounters three other strong-willed women who helped shape Jacques Ducharme’s life–Omah, the freed slave who took her place beside him as a river raider; his second wife, Laura, who loved money more than the man she married; and Laura and Jacques’ daughter, Maddie, a fiery beauty with a nearly uncontrollable appetite for love. Their stories, together with Annie’s, weave a haunting tale of this mysterious, seductive, and ultimately dangerous man, a man whose hand stretched over generations of women at a bend in the river where fate and desire collide.

The River Wife
richly evokes the nineteenth-century South at a time when lives changed with the turn of a card or the flash of a knife. Jonis Agee vividly portrays a lineage of love and heartbreak, passion and deceit, as each river wife comes to discover that blind devotion cannot keep the truth at bay, nor the past from haunting the present.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 HER NARROW IRON BED, WITH ITS LOVELY WHITE SCROLLWORK—A LUXURY           somehow accorded a girl of sixteen though her father was against it from        the beginning—slid back and forth behind the partition as if they were on the river, the roar so loud it was like a thousand beasts from the apocalypse set loose upon the land, just as her father had predicted. Then the partition hastily erected for her privacy crashed to the floor. The cabin walls shook so, her bed heaving like a boat on rough waters. The stone chimney toppled, narrowly missing her brothers, who had leapt awake at the first rumbling and run outside in their nightshirts. “Mother!” she cried, for hers was the last face the girl wished to see on this earth if this were truly Judgment. “Mother!” knowing she was too old to be held like a babe at breast, but wanting it anyway, “Mother!” and the ancient oaks to the south of the cabin groaned and began to crash with mighty concussion and the horses and cows bellowed. She clung to the tiny boat of her bed, and therein lay her mistake. “Mother!” But her mother was busy with the young ones, rushing them in their bedclothes outside the cabin to join her father and brothers, who were on their knees praying while the ancient cypress shook like an angry god overhead, and the birds swarmed in screaming flocks, and the ground opened up. She could smell it, the cabin floor a fissure that stank of boiling sand and muck. There was a terrific hammering and squealing as nails popped from wood, planks pulled apart, and the roof split in two. “Oh my mighty Lord,” she prayed, “take me to your bosom where I shall not want.” Just then, as if in response, there was a deep rumbling, followed by a loud grating overhead as the roof beam pulled away from the walls with a sudden sigh and crashed down across her legs, numbing them with the sudden unbearable weight and pinning her to her grave. She tried pushing at the beam, but it was too thick and heavy. Still she pushed and clawed, tearing her nails bloody, hammered with her fists, tried to lift her legs and kick out, but they were helpless, unable to move at all against the weight that kept pushing her down, past the point where she could stand it. She screamed until she was hoarse, unable to make herself heard over the chaos. When the shaking subsided, her father appeared in the doorway holding a lantern, her brothers standing just behind, looking so frightened she almost felt sorry for them. “Annie? Annie Lark?” he called into the darkness full of dust and soot from the collapsed chimney. The ground shivered and she could hear her brothers pushing away. “She’s dead!” the older brother cried. “Leave her—” They never could abide each other, and now he would consign her to hell. “I’m in here,” she called. “The roof beam has trapped me.” She was certain that her father would rescue her then. “Here—” Something flew through the air and thudded on the floor beside her. Although she stretched her arm, she could not possibly reach it, and the movement cost her a terrible tearing pain across her thighs. “Father!” she called as another shiver brought another section of roof crashing down halfway to the door. “Pray for strength, dear Annie, read the Scripture in the Bible and pray. He will deliver you!” Her father’s voice began to grow distant as he backed away from the collapsing cabin. She called out again, “Help me! Mother, please!” The cabin groaned in a chorus with the falling trees and screaming birds. Then her father drew close again to the cabin door. “I can’t dislodge the beam, Annie, there’s no time. Your brothers, the horses, nothing will come near to help. Please let us go.” His voice was no longer deep and confident, full of authority. It had taken on the pleading softness of her younger brother, a child full of fear and want. The beam was some two feet thick and twenty feet long, its displacement impossible to calculate amid the frantic animals and crying children and their own fearful hearts. She wondered that they did not shoot her like a cow or horse with a broken leg. The roof groaned, spilling dust that appeared to be filled with the brittle leavings of tiny broken stars in the sudden moonlight. “Give me a betty lamp and candle,” she said. “And blankets, I’m so cold.” She did not mention the pain radiating its terrible burning rays down her legs and up her back. It took her father a moment to collect his courage to enter the cabin, find and light the lamp, and gather several candles and sulphurs. He placed only a single deerskin over her feet, which had begun to turn icy in the weight of the cold. He must take the other blankets to the family, she understood. When he tugged her own quilts up to her chin and kissed her forehead, his body was quaking. “Farewell, dear girl”—his voice grew raspy—“we shall meet on the far shore, clothed in His bright joy.” The roof groaned again. His eyes went wild and he took a step back, almost stumbling over the log across her legs, and having to balance himself on the beam, pressing down, which caused a surge of pain that made her cry out. He whirled away and grabbed up guns, powder, and what provisions he could before running out the door into the darkness. She had so much to say that she clamped her lips closed, sealed them from cursing him forever as he hurried away. That was the last she ever saw of her family. The pain came in waves rising up from her legs, clenching her stomach, spreading through her arms and bursting into her head. She panted and cried out in a rhythm as if giving birth, alone, to this terrible night. There was a small window in the wall to her right, and as she lay there waiting for the Beasts of the Apocalypse to devour her, the waters of the damned to swirl about and swallow her, the mighty breath of God Himself to blow her into pieces that would never see salvation, she saw the distant fires devouring houses, heard the unnatural roar and rush as trees along the riverbank collapsed taking great chunks of earth with them, felt the wet hot air escaping from hell itself as the seams of the earth split and the damned cried forth, their breath the foul hissing steam that invaded the world. At first she prayed in between the spasms of pain, but it was a dry excuse. Then she pushed at the beam, tried to dig her fingers into the shuck mattress, hollow a hole to drop through, but to no avail. She tried turning on her side, no, tried dragging herself upwards, no, tried edging out at an angle, no, tried pushing herself down beneath it, out the foot of the bed, no. She was panting and cold in her sweat-soaked gown, longing for a sip of water, which she had forgotten to ask for. We are always more interested in light than anything else, she discovered that night. If we could only see our predicament, then it would be somehow possible to imagine escaping it. In the darkness nothing is possible except terrible occurrences, so she lit the betty lamp. Then in spite of her thirst, she had to relieve herself. Ashamed, she afforded herself the small pleasure despite the hours it meant afterward, lying in the wet. It was hers, not a younger brother’s or sister’s, and that made a difference. Oh, she was paying for the pride of this bed, she thought, and watched the dawn arrive, first gray coated, then blue and bright through the small window. She fell into a fitful half sleep. So ended the first day. When she awoke, the sun was shining, and she could see for certain the devastation and solitude that was her world. Her legs were merely a heavy aching numbness now. The betty lamp had died, and she wondered that her father could not spare the oil to give comfort to a dying daughter. Looking around the cabin, though, she knew with certainty that they would never return. With the partition down, there was one large room, and she could see the fireplace near the doorway. When the chimney tumbled, some of the large stones had fallen onto the hearth, where her brothers slept in cold weather. In summer, they slept outside on the porch, wrapped in hot blankets against the insects. The large black stew pot had tumbled into the room. A wonder her father had not bothered to pick it up. Her mother would miss the pot, which had served faithfully every day of their lives. Along the wall to her left, the pallet where her younger sisters slept, next to her parents’ bed, was strewn with broken crockery and jars of pears her mother had preserved from the first crop of their new trees. How the children loved those pears, so sweet when ripe that the juice ran between their fingers! Her mother must have hastily snatched the few pieces of clothing they owned, for there was nothing of value that she could see. Her father had indeed taken all the blankets. The crock of oil she so desperately needed was broken and spilled across the dirt floor. She was lucky the shaking occurred in the night when no candles or lamps were burning, and the fire in the hearth had so burned down that it was gray empty ash now. The crude wooden rocking horse she had constructed for the baby was on its side but intact beside her parents’ bed. He’d never know how his sister had loved him. In the middle of the room, the rough oak table her father had made was crushed by the other end of the beam that imprisoned her legs. The benches too were crushed. Only her mother’s rocking chair remained in the corner of the room, miraculously unscathed, its black lacquer finish glowing dully in the dusky light. She had rocked all her babes in that chair, but the carved lion faces with their jaws agape and fierce, enraged eyes had always frightened the girl enough that she never envied the other children given permission to sit in it. Now she imagined the eyes glaring at her, triumphant, and she couldn’t even look in that dark corner by the door that hung half off its leather hinges. The hellish smell in the air was gone, replaced by what she surmised to be the dense odor of earth released when the huge trees with the deepest roots were upturned like twigs. It was oddly comforting, the scent of fresh split wood, the dense musk of dirt overriding the sharp stink of piss and the salt rime of her fear. She thought of all the days when she had wanted only to lie abed, dreaming, and now she was cursed to die here, in a growing thirst, her tongue swelling, her throat so parched she had difficulty swallowing. This would be a slow death. Her father was right, she must have been the worst of sinners. What good came of a life such as hers? She tried to make amends in prayer. She begged for release. She promised herself to God. She would be handmaiden pure, and rejoice only in His glory. But nothing worked. And so she began to curse, trying to thrash, to move herself, to tear her legs from under the crushing weight of the beam. Yes, now she could feel it: The numbness was turning again to unbearable pain as her legs began to die. She screamed, hoping some passerby would hear, come to her rescue, but only the wind replied, rattling the broken world, sifting a few snowflakes from the roof. She held her mouth open trying to collect enough to satiate her thirst, but they disappeared on her tongue too quickly. It was well after noon that second day when she heard a knocking at the front of the cabin, and a voice she recognized called her name. It was Matthieu, a boy she had once danced and flirted with at a social, whose family lived in the town of New Madrid. “I’m here!” she cried. “In here—” He came hesitantly, like a deer picking its way into a meadow, stopping every few steps to look for danger. He was a tall, thin boy, with white blond hair and a narrow face that made him look sensitive—sympathetic watery blue eyes, thin nose, and a rather full wide mouth that would be more appealing on a girl perhaps, though she had liked it enough to let him kiss her quickly on the lips. He had tasted of anise. Stopping a few feet away as if to maintain propriety—she was, after all, a girl in a bed—he snatched off his red knit hat and tucked his hands under his arms and inquired as to her health. He didn’t look so well either, with dark sleepless circles under his blue eyes, scrapes on both cheeks, blood matting his hair, and coat torn and stuck with burs and dried grass. Still she felt ashamed of the damp she was lying in, the acrid smell, and the full brown head of hair that had been her pride, now tangled like a madwoman’s around her face. She could not drive him off, she told herself, she must charm and cajole him, convince him to help her. “Matthieu,” she said. “Can you move this log, please?” She was proud of herself, so polite and ladylike. If he came any closer she’d snatch his face and bloody it raw with her nails. Hurry! For God’s sake, hurry! she wanted to scream. There had been five big shakes and twenty small ones since last night. She’d been counting. She could hear the river sucking close by. Soon the outer walls would come down. He frowned and looked around the cabin in wonder, his mouth opening and closing in questions that answered themselves. He frowned some more when he glanced up at the open roof, the sagging shingles and boards. “Where is the river now?” she asked. He clambered over the beam, pushing down with his hand inadvertently as his leg caught. She could have killed him, but bit her lip against the painful surge, and smiled as her crushed legs throbbed anew. Her lips were chapped raw and bloody, a fitting color for seduction. “I’m thirsty,” she said, her voice croaking at the end. He looked up startled and glanced out the door. She hadn’t meant to send him away. “No,” she said, “don’t leave me.” “I’ll have to check the well,” he said. “It might have been split open, but I have my canteen. It’s right outside—”


From the Hardcover edition.
Jonis Agee|Author Q&A

About Jonis Agee

Jonis Agee - The River Wife
Jonis Agee is an award-winning author whose novels include the New York Times Notable Books Sweet Eyes and Strange Angels. A native of Nebraska, Agee spent most of her childhood summers in Missouri near Lake of the Ozarks. She taught for many years at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After a long absence, she returned to Nebraska, where she lives north of Omaha on an acreage along the Missouri River and teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH JONIS AGEE

A Jacques’ Landing Roundtable

Random House Reader’s Circle moderated a discussion group where Jacques Ducharme, Hedi Rails Ducharme, Annie Lark Ducharme, Laura Burke Shut Ducharme, Omah Ducharme, and Maddie Shut had the chance to speak with author Jonis Agee about her strategies for writing about–and her interference in–their lives. We are pleased to present a transcript of that discussion here.

Random House Reader’s Circle: Thank you all for being here today; we know you’ve all been looking forward to this. Jacques’ Landing residents, is there any one in particular who would like to begin?

Jacques Ducharme: Why a pirate? And why, cher, this particular pirate? What you want to go and give away all my secrets for? Why could you not have let the river take me, so I could join my dear little Annie?

Jonis Agee: Your wives were recording your secrets, Jacques. You should know that there is nothing that stays hidden, especially wrongdoing. You tried to hide the evidence in your tunnel room, but eventually even that was discovered. I thought that you should die with the thing you valued most–your heap of stolen goods, the fortune you made. Besides, the river wouldn’t have you, not after you put so many souls in it. Nothing could kill you, Jacques, you had made yourself a force beyond nature. Only you could decide to die–that’s why you had to spontaneously combust or self-immolate. If you keep helping people in the afterlife, maybe your ghost will finally be permitted to leave the house and join Annie’s.

Hedi Rails Ducharme: I shudder to ask this, since it brings back such a painful memory, but can you say something about sand boils?

JA: They’re one of the most intriguing by-products of the great quake– seemingly bottomless pits where the ground actually liquefied. They periodically fill with water, too, and nothing grows on top of them. Farmers have to be careful not to drive their machinery over them, because the boil never gives back what it takes. If you fly over the Bootheel region of Missouri, you can look down and see the yellow areas on the land which are sand boils. When the next big quake hits, those boils will probably spit back what’s in them.

Annie Lark Ducharme: What was Jacques doing in the woods that made him so strange? He never grew old after that.

JA: Jacques found something or someone with the power to grant him his desire for a vast fortune, and all he had to do was use everything he had in himself to bring it to fruition. He didn’t quite trade his soul in a pact with the devil, but he found that without a heart, he could be utterly ruthless. By shrugging off the burdens of morality, he could stay young, without grief or care, ageless.

Laura Burke Shut Ducharme: I don’t have a question for y’all, except to say that I was not a gold digger! I did love Jacques, no matter what they say! Didn’t I?

JA: No, Laura, it’s pretty clear to everyone that you wanted his fortune and the security it offered. Lots of people marry for those reasons. Your problem arose when you miscalculated what and who Jacques was, but then, you weren’t alone there. I’m sorry that you had to die in that awful hole, but you are much more like Jacques than you realize, and you share a similar fate.

Omah Ducharme: What is it about Jacques that cast a spell over so many women, ole twisted stick of a man with on’y one arm?

JA: I’m surprised that you’d ask this question, Omah. Surely you saw his quixotic personality over the years, his vast powers, his ruthlessness. Why did you fall in with his schemes? You may not have been his mistress or wife, but you did fulfill his plans for you, didn’t you? You became like Jacques, shared that power. It was exhilarating, wasn’t it? Remember the first night on the river, how strong you felt after you saved your own life? That feeling of being reborn, without weakness, without conscience, without consequence, as if you were a god walking the earth? That’s what women kept seeing in Jacques, kept believing they were going to get to share. That kind of belief in yourself is like a narcotic to other people. You know that, Omah; look at the men who were seduced by your power. Most women will trade the physical aspect of a man just to cozy up to that vastness of the unlimited self and the fortune it accumulates around itself.

Maddie Shut: How do you explain the mystery of my Da? Why didn’t he want me to marry and have a child?

JA: Read the journals, Maddie. He loved you. He hated betrayal more than anything, and he never forgave it after Annie Lark, his first wife. He loathed the weakness in himself that led him to marry Laura, his one great mistake. He was afraid that Laura’s blood was tainted by greed and selfishness–something he couldn’t stand in other people, by the way. He was trying to control the future with the codicil. He didn’t want his hard-earned money going to someone like Laura. Basically, I’m sorry to say, he didn’t trust you to find someone like L. O. Swan who would bring the best out of you and help create a person of fine character. Your Da was in his dotage, Maddie, gone slightly mad with having seen and done too many bad things, and lived too long. He came to believe that the world was a violent, hopeless place, and he didn’t want all he had worked to build to fall. He was wrong, of course, as most of us are when we try to plan for the future based on the unchanging present we perceive.

RHRC: Okay, okay, it’s about time we chimed in before you all get out of hand. Surely this could go on forever! Jonis, may we ask what it is about the New Madrid earthquake that you found so compelling?

JA: Growing up in the Midwest where we were always watching the sky for the tornado that was coming to tear our world apart, I developed a kind of fatal attraction for natural disasters. The New Madrid quake was the largest ever to occur in North America; it lasted for a whole year with over two thousand quakes and aftershocks, and it made the mighty Mississippi River run backwards at one point. More important, there are eyewitness accounts that give a personal view of the terror of those early days of the quake. The town of New Madrid is emptied and eventually taken by the river changing course because of the quake. As I was reading the early accounts of the quake, I came upon the haunting story of a young girl who was trapped and abandoned by her family the night of the first quake. In a way, The River Wife grew out of that one story and my need to save her life. I simply couldn’t stand the idea that she was left to die by the people who loved her. She became Annie Lark, and Jacques Ducharme was one of the French fur trappers who were dug into the banks of the river that night, and who reportedly somehow survived.

RHRC: Very interesting indeed. In writing historical fiction around that kind of event, what delighted you the most–and what did you find most dangerous?

JA: It’s wonderful to see a world come alive through historical details. Audubon was riding his horse in Kentucky during one of the big quakes, and there is an account of him beating his horse when it stopped, terrified. When Audubon jumped off the animal, figuring it was dying, he discovered the earthquake. It was exciting to have Audubon come into the novel, a natural place for him, since he was traveling and exploring for new species in the region. The day he appeared on Jacques and Annie’s doorstep, I immediately begin to read his diaries, letters, and biography for more information to make him come alive. What I like most is the discovery of things I didn’t know, and being able to include them in the fiction. The danger lies in the balancing act between historical detail and facts and character and plot. The people must always come first so they can stay realistic, alive, despite the clothing they wear. I had a lot of information about building log houses of the time, including research I’d done on tools used in that period–fascinating stuff, really–but I ended up cutting a lot of that detail because it was taking much too long to put up the first inn at Jacques’ Landing. We needed to move along with the people to discover what they were going to do next.

RHRC: How did you research all of this?

JA: I began my research with histories of the New Madrid quake, the state of Missouri, the War Between the States, the geology, weather, plant and animal species there, and as I moved through each era, I focused on more specific subjects, such as early French settlements and cooking, river travel, clothing, slavery, battles fought in the region, logging, cotton farming, Hot Springs, Reelfoot Lake, and so on. There were always details that needed to be added, and I grew to love that process of discovering–what kind of pistol Laura would carry with her to Hot Springs, for instance.

RHRC: Now, there seem to be a number of ghosts haunting the house and land at Jacques’ Landing. Can you lend a bit of insight as to whether you intend this to be a ghost story, and if so, why?

JA: I wanted to write a novel about a particular place, a patch of land along a river that was in constant motion, and tell the story of everyone and everything that passed through that place and left a piece of themselves, however slight, like a reminder to us that we are not the first, and we will not be the last. I love old houses because they bear evidence of all the lives that have been lived there, in the layers of wallpaper and paint, nicks in the woodwork and scratches on the window glass. Even the earth surrounding an old house constantly yields up evidence in the form of marbles, pieces of old hinges, coins, and combs. Last week I found a lead ball from an old rifle used when the military first set up on the bluff overlooking the river valley where I live. This was Ponca tribal land, and I keep wondering what that gun was shooting at. Ghosts are everywhere.

RHRC: Okay, here’s a question whose answer I think we’re all dying to know: Why does Jacques stop loving, or seem to stop loving, Annie Lark? It couldn’t just be Audubon and the suspected affair, could it?

JA: Annie and Jacques suffer the worst kind of loss when their baby is killed. The aftershocks continue for the rest of their life together, as they often will. Annie registers her grief by withdrawing for a time into madness, then by going up the tree to observe the world. They are never really together after the loss of the baby. Jacques registers his grief by throwing himself into another kind of madness: the building of a vast empire beginning with the house he is constructing. When they argue, it’s as if they are trying to push away the blame for the baby’s death. They each blame themselves, as well as each other. Although there is almost no way for their pain to be healed, at the very end of Annie’s life, Jacques discards the past and realizes that he still loves her. He has made a pact with the devil, however; now he can’t save her and must live forever with this new loss of the one person with whom he shared a fully realized love.

RHRC: How powerful–and after Chabot dies, Jacques seems to change for the worse, and life at the Landing degenerates rapidly. Why?

JA: Chabot was the one male friend Jacques had, the person who knew him in the beginning and saw him in love with Annie, helped birth his child, knew him as a new father, full of all that potential for family. With Chabot gone, there is no one who is an equal to Jacques, and the dark force of his desires are free to couple with the strength of his personality to make him ruthless and heartless, at times. Chabot had the power of balancing Jacques, helping him control his impulses, such as when he helps the slaves escape rather than selling them downriver, as Jacques planned to do. There is more than money to life for Chabot, and he helps Jacques realize that while alive.

RHRC: Was Clement just a bad man, or did he originally love Hedie? Why did Hedie stay with him?

JA: Clement loves Hedie as best he can when they get together. He does marry her when she gets pregnant with his child, and he does try to be a good husband, although the kind of life he’s leading eventually takes him away from her in every way. Again, the devastating loss of a child pulls them apart, although not as ferociously as it does earlier with Jacques and Annie. Clement is a more diluted version of Jacques, softer, less violent and certain of things. He isn’t the builder or dreamer that Jacques is; everything is a bit diminished in Clement’s scale of living, although to him it seems large. Clement probably never had the strength of character to remain faithful for very long, but he would always intend to do so. He does appreciate Hedie as the woman who keeps his home, which is in large part a refuge from the illegal acts he is commiting in the larger world. He likes having a wife who can nurse him to health and make him comfortable. Hedie is a seventeen-year-old girl with no family, no job skills, no money, during the Great Depression. She has no possible options except to stay with Clement or starve or worse. She makes the best of things, trying to salvage her marriage and build something that will endure for both of them so he doesn’t have to keep leaving. She knows, after Hot Springs, that he is capable of infidelity on a serial or constant basis, but she is trying to make the best of things. She is more like Little Maddie and Annie Lark than she knows. She has strength and vision that she has to learn to use, and by the end of the novel, she does, although the cost has been great. Eventually, she embraces the family belief in preserving the land, the inheritance.

RHRC: Why don’t Little Maddie, and later Hedie, bring Jacques’ fortune above ground and use it?

JA: There is so much destruction and mayhem tied to that accumulation of jewels, coin, furniture, etc., that both women understand the enormous cost to the soul it represents. Neither is willing to take that burden on unless it becomes a matter of losing Jacques’ Landing. By the time Hedie has read the journal narratives, she knows where the fortune is, but like Little Maddie, she intends to develop and use her own powers to maintain the family legacy so she doesn’t have to share in Jacques’ terrible demise. Successive generations all work to pay reparations, if you will, for Jacques’ crimes, which continue to haunt the house at Jacques’ Landing.

RHRC: Well, thank you, everyone, for being here. We’ve learned a lot, and hope you have, too.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The house Jacques Ducharme builds for Annie Lark is present throughout the novel. What is its significance? Why are Annie and later her ghost always seen outside the house, never inside?

2. The New Madrid earthquake profoundly changed not only the physical character of the landscape but also the human characters of the region. How would you describe the effects on the people in the novel?

3. Who is the “river wife”? Are all the women in the novel wives? Why and how are they attracted to these men?

4. What is the meaning of the circumstances of Jacques’ death?

5. Why does Omah join Jacques as a pirate, and why does she stay with the family later? How is Omah like and unlike the other women?

6. Why does old Maddie stay to take care of Jacques and Laura’s baby? Doesn’t she realize that Jacques has been instrumental in the deaths of her two children?

7. Jacques Ducharme is a powerful figure throughout the novel–even in death. What is the source of his power? What did Annie Lark and Little Maddie find to love in him?

8. Does Annie really envision having an affair with Audubon? What are his intentions?

9. Why isn’t Laura satisfied with her marriage and prospect of wealth with Jacques? What is driving her to align herself with Major Stark? Does she get what she deserves?

10. Why does L. O. Swan give up his dream of returning home to stay with Little Maddie? Is it fair that Little Maddie asks this of him?

11. How is each of the characters both similar to Jacques and different from him?

12. The River Wife grapples with the secrets that plague families through generations, growing more hidden and deadly as they undermine the house. Would it have been possible to change this legacy? What would become of Hedie then?

13. Although their lives are filled with loss, what do the women and men of this novel gain through their marriages and relationships? What makes them continue to struggle with each other, with the land, with the ghosts that haunt their lives?


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