"From the author of the National Book Award finalist Hummingbird House comes a novel about an Indiana family swept up in the rapids of history - both the social and spiritual upheavals of present-day America and the bitter legacy of the war in Vietnam." "At mid-life, Ruth Anne Bond is still passionately in love with her husband, Johnny, deeply involved in her church, and close to her daughter, Laurel. But one day she receives a message that threatens the foundations of her marriage - a message she has craved and dreaded for thirty years:" "Dear
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In the River Sweet

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"From the author of the National Book Award finalist Hummingbird House comes a novel about an Indiana family swept up in the rapids of history - both the social and spiritual upheavals of present-day America and the bitter legacy of the war in Vietnam." "At mid-life, Ruth Anne Bond is still passionately in love with her husband, Johnny, deeply involved in her church, and close to her daughter, Laurel. But one day she receives a message that threatens the foundations of her marriage - a message she has craved and dreaded for thirty years:" "Dear Mrs. Ruth Anne, I believe you are my mother." What emerges is a secret dating back to 1968, when nineteen-year old Ruth Anne was a volunteer in a French convent in Saigon and where, at Tet, the celebratory pop of firecrackers gave way to the sound of gunfire. As Ruth Anne struggles to come to terms with her past - and Johnny grapples with his own memories of the war - Patricia Henley crafts a sensitive and beautifully written meditation on family and faith, and what it means to be moral in a world of conflicting moral codes.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Henley returns with a worthy successor to her first novel, Hummingbird House. The heroine, Ruth Anne Bond, is a woman of 50, living in Indiana; Johnny, her husband of nearly 30 years, is the proprietor of an upscale restaurant. Everything seems picture perfect until devoutly Catholic Ruth Anne learns that their only daughter, Laurel, is a lesbian. While she adjusts to this revelation (she is more upset by the Church's intolerance than by the fact itself), her own secret past catches up with her: she is contacted by Tin, the illegitimate son she conceived with a blind Vietnamese boy when she was a teenager working in a convent in Saigon. The moral dilemmas attendant upon living with such a secret are sensitively treated and readers' sympathies for each of the troubled characters will be fully engaged. Written from the point of view of Ruth Anne, the tale unfolds in her memories as she relives the events resulting from her stay in Vietnam. But she must also focus on her current problems, including marital discord and a violent attack on Laurel and her lover, Oceana. Though the plot moves back and forth in time a great deal, it is enhanced rather than weakened by this strategy. Henley, who is also a poet, balances long, stream-of-consciousness passages with short, potent sentences to wonderful effect, tilling the familiar ground of sexuality and spirituality with originality and grace. (Oct. 1) Forecast: Henley's work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Short Stories, and Hummingbird House was a 1999 National Book Award finalist. Expect more of the same kind of attention for her latest. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Nothing from the past ever really goes away. When Ruth Anne hits 50, she seems to have all the parts of her life nicely organized. Even the unexpected, like her only daughter acknowledging her lesbianism, can be handled. But when her son, born in Vietnam, sends her an e-mail saying he would like to meet her, her past suddenly roars up. It is this past that makes Ruth Anne's story most interesting to YAs. In a combination of flashbacks and scenes from the present, Ruth Anne looks at her Roman Catholic past, her aunt's influence on her, and her marriage. She figures out who she is now and who she wants to be for the rest of her life. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 291p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Ruth Anne Bond has been happily married for more than 25 years. Judging from appearances, things couldn't be better: her relationship remains loving, her spouse owns a thriving restaurant, and she spends her days aiding the good Father Carroll in a small-town Indiana parish. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a confluence of events shatters this domestic peace. First, Ruth Anne's adult daughter, Laurel, announces that she is a lesbian. While Ruth Anne loves her child, this news sends her reeling, forcing her to reconsider the homophobia promulgated by her beloved Catholic Church. But before she can fully process what is happening, a disturbing e-mail from a man who claims to be Ruth Anne's son causes her to confront a history she has spent decades denying. Vexing questions about commitment, faith, forgiveness, and love make Ruth Anne scrutinize the personal politics that control her life. Henley's second novel following National Book Award finalist Hummingbird House weaves important issues into a compelling story. Although spiritually disinclined readers will find its theological bent excessive, it is recommended for all public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.] Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Poet, storywriter, and second-novelist Henley (Hummingbird House, 1999) offers a historical romance that goes back and forth between the contemporary Midwest and 1960s Vietnam. Ruth Anne Bond is quiet and self-effacing, a devout Catholic and devoted wife and mother, who works at the town library in Tarkington, Indiana. She doesn't always see eye-to-eye with Father Carroll, but she shares his discomfort with homosexuality: Ruth's daughter Laurel has recently declared herself a lesbian, and Ruth is torn between her love of Laurel and her disapproval. Not that Ruth has never strayed herself-she had a doomed affair with a man in Vietnam many years before-but there are certain lines she simply can't cross. One day, however, her past comes back to haunt her when she receives an e-mail from a Tin Tran, who claims to be Ruth's son. The Vietnamese affair is now more than a distant memory, and Ruth needs to learn how to organize the disparate elements of her life. Tin is getting married, and his fiancée naturally wants to know something of his family history. Slowly Ruth recalls the steps that took her to Vietnam, where she worked as librarian in a convent of French nuns in order to be closer to her husband-to-be, Johnny. But there she also met Vo, who became her lover and the father of her first child. Overwhelmed by past (Tin invites her to his wedding) and present (Laurel and her girlfriend decide to buy a house together), Ruth goes to Michigan to stay in the convent where a childhood friend of hers, now a nun, has lived for over 20 years. She also tries to bring about a reconciliation with her elderly aunt, now in a nursing home run by the convent. There is, as everyone knows, a period ofmiddle age wherein almost everyone ends up regretting the compromises of youth. Will Ruth manage? Sentimental, but readable and sincere all the same. Author tour
From the Publisher
“Emotionally rich. . . . Nuanced. . . . Voluptuous. . . . A true accomplishment in the craft of fiction.” —Chicago Tribune

“Absolutely superb. . . . With a poet’s eye for the essential and a novelists’s sweeping vision . . . Patricia Henley iluminates here the wounds and yearnings of us all.” —Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog

“Beautifully rendered. . . . An absorbing story.” —The Boston Globe

“Sure to please readers deeply. . . . Henley conjures the bygone Vietnam era with eerie and bittersweet poignancy.” —The Dallas Morning News

“An atmospheric and involving drama of family, belief and moral quandaries.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307426376
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/18/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 456,197
  • File size: 412 KB

Meet the Author

Patricia Henley’s first novel, Hummingbird House, was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award and The New Yorker Best Fiction Book Award. Henley has also written two books of poetry, Learning to Die and Back Roads, and three story collections: Friday Night at Silver Star, which won the 1985 Montana Arts Council First Book Award; The Secret of Cartwheels; and Worship of the Common Heart: New and Selected Stories. Her stories have been published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and Northwest Review, and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize anthology. Henley lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches in the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program at Purdue University.
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Reading Group Guide

1. In the River Sweet is filled with images of embroidered quotes on banners, engraved quotes on pillars, quotes on t-shirts, lettered signs, graffiti on buildings, short stories, poems, novels, letters, e-mails. What is the importance of the printed word in this novel? How do the different means of printing affect the way the words are perceived? An e-mail instead of a letter? Graffiti on the church wall as opposed to authorized stone etchings?

2. Ruth Anne lives in River County, Indiana and often goes with her husband for romantic picnics by the river. She grew up on Lake Michigan and returns there for meditation and to be close to her dying aunt. While pregnant with Tin, she walks along the China Sea in Vietnam, and years later meets him again near Lake Michigan. What is the appeal of rivers and lakes for Ruth Anne? What is the connection between water, Ruth Anne’s tale, and the title In the River Sweet?

3. In the River Sweet occurs over the course of one summer through flashbacks, primarily Ruth Anne’s. Why has Henley chosen this structure? What is the function of Johnny’s sudden narration? Does his perspective change your view of Ruth Anne or the situation?

4. How has her Midwestern upbringing and community affected Ruth Anne, her personality and desires? How has it influenced her decisions and compromises? Despite the town and church’s disapproval of her daughter, Ruth Anne returns to River County in the end—“it’s where she had the most to learn”? Why?

5. In the River Sweet is primarily a tale about family. Does the definition of family evolve over the course of the novel? What does family mean to Ruth Anne? To Johnny? To Tin?

6. Why is Ruth Anne attracted to Vo? Compare/contrast him to her husband Johnny. How are their relationships different? What binds Ruth Anne to Vo? And to Johnny? Do the events of the novel change, or shift, these ties?

7. Why didn’t Ruth Anne tell Johnny about Vo and Tin? In doing so, did she ultimately betray or protect him? Or was it a mixture of both? What emotional price has she paid for her secret?

8. What does the fishhook poem that Tin sends symbolize? How about the Tale of Kieu with which the novel ends? How do they compare with the Western stories that Vo and Ruth Anne read together? “All literature is hope,” one of the characters says. Do you agree with this quote?

9. Johnny and Ruth Anne respond differently to their daughter’s sexuality and lover. Why the differences? What is it about their personalities, gender, and experiences that influence their reactions? Is one stronger than the other? Do you think they would have responded differently if Laurel were a son?

10. How does the hate crime change/affect each member of the family? Afterwards, why do Laurel and Oceana refuse to press charges? Why must they leave town? Is courage or fear propelling them?

11. What are the various views on organized religion presented in the novel by Father Carroll, Sister Jill, Vo, Oceana? How do Ruth Anne’s feelings about religion and spirituality transform in the novel?

12. How do Johnny’s and Ruth Anne’s opposing opinions on meditation reflect their views on life? What new perspectives does Ruth Anne gain from meditation?

13. “Jill always argued that hearts should be open to each other.” Is this philosophy too naïve? Is it a truth? Do you agree with it—in theory or in practice?

14. This is also a novel about forgiveness. Henley gives the example of the burned Vietnamese girl forgiving and embracing the American pilot who sprayed napalm on her village. What is the meaning of forgiveness? And compassion? What does it mean to be moral in today’s society?

15. How do the minor characters play into the story of the novel? Limbo, and his special relationship with Ruth Anne? Mairead, and her role in Johnny’s summer? Aunt Teensy, and her loneliness, anger, and compromises? Father Carroll, and his dogmatism?

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