Stony River ~ Reviewed by Pearl LukeBook Reviews Tuesday, July 24th, 2012
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Penguin Canada, 345 pp. $24
Reviewed by Pearl Luke
Stony River, Tricia Dower’s delicious second book and debut novel, opens on two friends idling away a scorching summer afternoon. Tereza, thirteen, lives in the building with the store Linda’s mother deems “seedy” and seems to Linda to have complete freedom. Linda is twelve and tries not to “feel superior to Tereza for living in a tidy bungalow with green siding and its own yard.”
The girls are smoking cattail “punks” down by the river near Crazy Haggerty’s house when the police arrive there. Two officers escort fifteen-year-old Miranda Haggerty and her sixteen-month-old son out of the house and into protective custody. Miranda has not been outside in twelve years. No one in town knew that she or her son existed.
From this point of intersection, the three girls’ lives shoot off in separate and vastly different directions.
Gentle, bewildered Miranda is put into the care of first nuns and then the wife of one of the policemen who brought her in, though neither party’s interest in her is entirely altruistic. Miranda sees the world through a soft-focus lens, but in times of clarity is both quick and discerning. Having lost everything except her son, her father’s letters, and a few personal effects, she struggles to obey her father’s advice as she determines who and what she will believe:
Dawn, soft as a lullaby, creeps in on timid fingers and toes across the early sky. Miranda lies abed, picturing herself at both ends of a tug-of-war. Which side does she want to win: the one keeping her “grounded in the here and now,” to use Sister Celine’s words, or the one beckoning like a Siren? The Voice of James exhorts her to abide in three worlds at once: that of the physical, the soul and an saol eile, the Other Life.
Tough, independent Tereza fellates men in their cars for money. She backs down the street, taunting her violent stepfather, always just out of reach as he lashes the pavement with his belt. When Linda steps between them, Tereza is safe for the moment. She loses track of her mother when she takes refuge with a troubled young man and his kind and pragmatic grandmother, unaware that her troubles are just beginning.
Resentful, good-girl Linda—seemingly safe and protected by floundering middleclass parents with misplaced emotions, contradictory expectations, and longstanding problems of their own—is fortunate to survive at all.
In one well-meaning moment, Linda’s father admonishes her:
“Don’t ever turn down a dance, do you hear me?” Ignoring her attempt at an explanation he pressed on, explaining the fragility of the male ego, the courage it took to ask a girl to dance and how humiliating it was to be turned down, especially in front of others. She was to follow along with whatever steps the boy made, laugh if he laughed, reassure him if he apologized for stumbling, treat the dance as though it were the most fun she’d ever had and the boy the most interesting person she’d ever met.
Much later, as if unaware of his earlier message, he says, “I still can’t understand why you were so concerned about hurting a stranger’s feelings that you got into a car with him.”
Each girl’s story, rife with chilling coming-of-age moments, allows readers glimpses through the curtained windows of 1950s Stony River. There readers witness more than enough to keep them riveted—not only highly charged moments, the destructive effects of secrecy, bad parenting, and ill-thought choices, but also heartening acts of strength, kindness, and bravery.
If, as Tricia Dower states in the author’s note, her “goal was to produce a ‘ripping good yarn,’” she has inarguably succeeded. And lucky for us that, “the urge to challenge religious dogma as well as assumptions about right and wrong, sanity and madness, love and abuse crept into the exercise.”
Exquisitely written, honest, and entertaining, everything in this disquieting story works toward a successful narrative. Equally evocative and insightful, intriguing thematically and symbolically, Stony River is an intensely satisfying read, like reading Margaret Laurence.
Other reviews by Pearl Luke
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