River Angel

( 2 )


In April 1991, in a little Wisconsin town about a hundred miles southwest of the town where I grew up, a misfit boy was kidnapped by a group of high school kids who, later, would testify they'd merely meant to frighten him, to drive him around for a while. Somehow they ended up at the rive, whooping and hollering on a two-lane bridge. Somehow the boy was shoved, he jumped, he slipped?acounts vary?into the icy water. The kids told police they never heard a splash; one reported seeing a brilliant flash of light. ...

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River Angel: A Novel

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In April 1991, in a little Wisconsin town about a hundred miles southwest of the town where I grew up, a misfit boy was kidnapped by a group of high school kids who, later, would testify they'd merely meant to frighten him, to drive him around for a while. Somehow they ended up at the rive, whooping and hollering on a two-lane bridge. Somehow the boy was shoved, he jumped, he slipped—acounts vary—into the icy water. The kids told police they never heard a splash; one reported seeing a brilliant flash of light. (Several people in the area witnessed a similar light, while others recalled hearing something "kind of like thunder.") All night, volunteers walked the river's edge, but it was dawn before the body was found in a barn a good mile from the bridge . . .

The owner of the barn had been the one to discover the body, and she said the boy's cheeks were rosy, his skin warm to the touch. A sweet smell hung in the air. "It was," she said "as if he were just sleeping." And then she told police she believed an angel had carried him there.

For years, it had been said that an angel lived in the river. Residents flipped coins into the water for luck, and a few claimed they had seen the angel, or known someone who'd seen it. The historical society downtown had a farmwife's journal, dated 1898, in which a woman described how an angel had rescued her family from a flood. Now, as the story of the boy's death spread, more people came forward with accounts of strange things that had happened on that night. Dogs had barked without ceasing till dawn; livestock broke free of padlocked barns. Someone's child crayoned a bridge and, above it, a wide-winged tapioca angel.

A miracle? A hoax? Or something in between? With acute insight and great compassion, A. Manette Ansay captures the inner life of a town and its residents struggling to forge a new identity in the face of a rapidly changing world.

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Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
“Ansay gracefully weaves together the lives of her characters.”
Chicago Tribune
Ansay gracefully weaves together the lives of her character.
Judith Grossman
With River Angel, A. Manette Ansay has moved beyond her prior mastery of the family scene to a lucid, eloquent representation of the commingled and conflicting lives of a town. But she has also paid a writer's tribute to that final, inviolate zone of privacy that is the domain of spiritual belief -- and, therefore, of angels.
New York Times Book Review
Chicago Tribune
Ansay gracefully weaves together the lives of her character.
New York Times Book Review
A writer with a gift for persuasive and shapely narrative. . .With River Angel, A. Manette Ansay has moved beyond her priormastery of the family scene to a lucid, eloquent representation of the commingled and conflicting lives of a town. But she has alsopaid a writer's tribute to that final, inviolate zone of privacy that is the domain of spiritual belief—and, therefore, of angels.
Chicago Tribune
Ansay gracefully weaves together the lives of her character.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the small town of Ambient, Wis., expressions of Christian faith range from intense to transitory, from the rituals of a traditional Catholic church to a women's prayer and support group called "Circle of Faith," Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers and on down to the non-believers. In clear, emotionally intense prose, Ansay Sisters delivers the story of the mysterious death of a 10-year-old boy named Gabriel Carpenter through the eyes of townspeople of varying beliefs, motivations and behaviors. Recently abandoned by his wayward father to the reluctant care of an aunt and uncle in Ambient, Gabriel doesn't adjust well: his weak social skills, overt piety and constant search for the river angel which, according to town legend, protects people who have fallen into the river quickly make him a target for playground humiliation. One night, while Gabriel is walking over the bridge near where the angel supposedly resides, a carload of drunken teenagers chase and corner him, and somehow he disappears. It is unclear if he falls or is pushed off the bridge; but his body appears later, dry, still warm, but dead, in a barn a mile downstream. The consensus of townspeople is that he was carried there by the river angel, and a shrine springs up at the barn, drawing visitors from all over the state. The industry activated by these pilgrims who buy loads of souvenir angel T-shirts and "I Believe" bumper stickers revitalizes Ambient's failing economy; it's a miracle of sorts. As in her previous novels, Ansay displays a gift for rendering the dynamics of small-town life and the minute calibrations of human relationships. Here, out of the individual residents of Ambient and a broad chorus of voices, each one grappling with the human craving for the divine, she fashions a striking story about the ironies faith.
Library Journal
The tiny Wisconsin town of Ambient has visitors: there's handsome but no-good Shawn Carpenter, planning to drop his unkempt, neglected ten-year-old son, Gabriel, off for good with his brother's family near the old home place just in time for Christmas. There's also the angel local lore says lives at the river near town. As told by numerous town residents (Shawn's sister-in-law, the local real estate developer, lovely but sneaky teenager Cherish, her mother and the other ladies of the Faith Circle), the tragedy that occurs when some local punks drop Gabriel into the river vividly unfolds. Using these clear, true voices, both believers and unbelievers of the river angel story, Ansay rivals Jane Smiley in her ability to bring the small-town Midwest to life. Warmly recommended; this is a wonderful novel. Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., Radford, Vt.
Kirkus Reviews
Ansay's strangely uninvolving third novel (after Vinegar Hill, 1994, and Sister, 1996) narrates the effects of an ostensibly supernatural occurrence on a small Wisconsin town: a faux-mystical tale that may enthrall the spiritually challenged while leaving more skeptical readers wondering what the hell it's talking about. The story begins when handsome, faithless Shawn Carpenter brings his motherless ten-year-old Gabriel to Shawn's brother's family in their hometown of Ambient (these names are symbols, folks: pay attention), and abandons the boy. It climaxes when Gabriel, an overweight, whiny misfit whose religious zeal alienates peers and adults alike, is pushed off or falls from a bridge after older teenagers torment him. Gabriel's body is later found "brought" ashore, in an attitude of peaceful repose consistent with Ambient's local legend that a resident "river angel" protects those who fall into its river (neither Ansay nor the Carpenters' neighbors bother to explain why this protective spirit neglects also to save its beneficiaries from drowning). Ansay structures the novel as a series of extended portraits of Ambient's citizens, who variously credit or are affected by this supposed evidence of benign celestial intervention. These include an unhappily married teacher who takes an immediate if inexplicable dislike to Gabriel, two of the teenagers perhaps responsible for his death, and several members of a women's prayer- and support- group that calls itself the Circle of Faith. The best character here, a crippled realtor who matter-of-factly shoulders her several burdens, and scorns the promises of faith healing, is introduced too late to inject any savingirony into the story's redundant grapplings with the possibilities of belief. Page by page, River Angel is deftly written and solidly characterized, but it doesn't add up to much. And, if you don't find yourself persuaded by Ansay's fable, you may detect more than a whiff of both Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter and the commercially dynamic contemporary Angelology fad. Ansay can do better than this.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380729746
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Series: Quill
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,558,734
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

A. Manette Ansay

A. Manette Ansay is the author of eight books, including Vinegar Hill, Midnight Champagne (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Blue Water. She has received the Pushcart Prize, two Great Lakes Book Awards, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Miami.


A. Manette Ansay's first novel, Vinegar Hill, established the writer as a novelist who could tell a difficult story with great grace. Born in Michigan in 1964 and raised in Port Washington, Wisconsin among a huge Roman Catholic extended family, Ansay infuses her fiction with the reality of Midwestern farm life, the constraints of Roman Catholicism, and the toll the combination can take on women and men alike.

Philosophical and cerebral, with a gift for identifying the telling domestic detail and conveying it in a fresh way, Ansay incorporates the rhythm of rural Midwestern life -- the polka dance at a wedding reception, the bowling alley, community suppers, gossip, passion, and betrayal -- into novels that illuminate the most difficult aspects of maintaining any close relationship, whether it be familial or not. In Vinegar Hill, Ansay examines the forces that hold a Catholic woman in the 1970s hostage to her emotionally abusive marriage. In Midnight Champagne, set at a wedding, she focuses her lens on the institution of marriage itself; the story is told through the shifting points of view of the couples who attend the event.

Readers and critics alike have testified to her talents: The New Yorker said of Vinegar Hill, "This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the final line is worth the pain it takes to get there." The novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999; Ansay's following book, Midnight Champagne, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Like Flannery O'Connor, whom Ansay cites as an influence, Ansay is concerned with moments of grace in which the truth suddenly manifests itself with life-changing intensity. In the wrong hands, her material could be the stuff of soap operas. But Ansay strives for emotional complexity rather than mere bathos, and addresses both suffering and joy with intelligence and sensitivity.

Ansay's life has been as complex and fascinating as the dramas that unfold in her novels. A gifted pianist as a child, she studied at the University of Wisconsin while still a high school student. Later, while a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, she was afflicted by a disease that devastated her neurological system, cutting short her dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and leaving her confined for years to a wheelchair. She had never written fiction before, but turned her disciplined ear and mind to writing, promising herself to write two hours a day, three days a week, the same sort of disciplined schedule she had imposed on herself as a student musician.

Limbo, Ansay's story of her struggle with illness, is as evocatively written as her novels. Ansay never descends into sentimentality, but instead confronts her medical problems – and the limitations they impose – unflinchingly, describing both the indignities that disabled people face daily, as well as how her own illness has become a personal test of faith.

Good To Know

Ansay was still looking for the appropriate title for her first novel when, on the way to a meeting with her MFA advisor near Cornell University, Ansay spotted a street sign with the answer. "I happened to glance up and see a street sign that said "Vinegar Hill." It was perfect," Ansay writes on her web site. "I had never turned onto that street before, and I made a point never to do so afterwards. I wanted it to belong solely to my characters. And it does."

One scene in Midnight Champagne, the air-hockey table encounter, was written for a friend of Ansay's. She writes, "A friend of mine had been musing about sex and literature, and she said, 'Why is it that we so seldom read about the kind of sex we want to be having?' I said, 'What kind of sex is that?' She said, 'Fun sex.' I said, 'I'm writing a scene just for you."'

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    1. Hometown:
      Port Washington, Wisconsin; now lives in New York City
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lapeer, Michigan
    1. Education:
      MFA, Cornell University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The boy, Gabriel, and his father stopped for the night somewhere north of Canton, Ohio. Around them, the land lay in one vast slab, the snow crust bright as water beneath the waxing moon. The nearest town was ten miles away, unincorporated, and there was nothing in between except a handful of farmhouses, Christmas lights burning in each front window; a few roads; fewer stop signs; a small white crossroads church. High above and out of harm's way were the cold, gleaming eyes of stars, and each one was so strangely iridescent that if a man in one of the farmhouses had risen for an aspirin or a glass of warm milk -- he could have been forgiven for waking his wife to tell her he'd seen-well, something. A glowing disk that swelled and shrank. A pattern of flashing lights. And she could have been forgiven, later, for telling people she'd seen something too as she'd stood by the bedroom window, sock-footed and shivering, her husband still pointing to that place in the sky.

But a wind came up in the early morning hours, scattering the stars and moon like winter seeds, so that by dawn the sky was empty, the color of a tin cup. It was the day before Christmas. The air had turned cold enough to make Gabriel's nostrils pinch together as he stood in the motel parking lot, listening to his father quote figures about the length of time human skin could be exposed to various temperatures.

"It's not like this is Alaska, kiddo," Shawn Carpenter said, clattering bright-yellow plastic plates and cups from the motel's kitchenette onto the floor of the station wagon. The old dog, Grumble, who was investigating the crushed snow around the dumpster, shuddered as if thesound had been gunshot. The previous day, she'd ridden on the floor between Gabriel's legs, her face at eye level with Gabriel's face, panting with motion sickness. There'd been nowhere else to put her. Behind the front seats, the space was packed with all the things that hadn't been sold or lost or left behind: clothing, cookbooks, a color TV, a neon-orange beanbag chair, snowshoes, a half-built dulcimer, two miniature lemon trees in large lemon-shaped pots, and Shawn's extensive butterfly collection, which was mounted on pieces of wood and enclosed behind glass plates. whenever she'd started barking crazily, they'd been forced to stop and let her outside. The last time, it had taken over an hour of whistling to coax her back.

Shawn peeled off one of his gloves and held his bare hand out toward Gabriel. "One one thousand," he said, counting out the seconds. "Two one thousand. Three one thousand."

They were on their way to Ambient, Wisconsin. An oily light spread toward them from the edge of the horizon, and now Gabriel could see I-77 in the distance, a thin gray line slicing through the snowy fields, unremarkable as a healed-over scar. A single car crept along it, and he imagined it lifting into the air as lightly as a cotton ball. He imagined it again. If you believed in something hard enough, if your faith was pure, you could make anything happen -- his fifth-grade teacher, Miss Welch, had told him that. Miss Welch was born again. Still the car kept moving at its careful speed, and Gabriel knew he must have doubted, and that was the only reason why the car kept dwindling down the highway to a point no brighter than a star.

"You see?" Shawn said, and he wriggled his fingers. "If this was Alaska, my hand would be frozen. If this was Alaska, we'd probably be dead."

Grumble had found a grease-stained paper bag. Her tail moved rapidly to and fro as if she believed something good was inside it. Yet Grumble wagged her tail just as energetically at snowplows and mailboxes, at the sound of canned laughter on TV, at absolutely nothing at all.

"A dog, on the other hand, is a survivor. Warm fur, sharp teeth. A survivor!" Shawn said, and he must have enjoyed the sound of that word because he said it again as they pulled out of the parking lot. Gabriel stared back at Grumble, hoping she would look up, hoping she would not. Then he faced front and kicked the plates and cups aside, making room for his feet against the vent. He pulled off one of his mittens and picked up a cup, which he held in front of his glasses. Peering through the oval handle, he watched the land compress to fit into that tiny space. "She'll find a nice family," Shawn assured him. "She'll forget all about us"

Noreen had been much harder to leave behind. Shawn still owed her money from the camper, which they'd bought with money she'd saved from years of work at a small insurance company. That was when they still had plans to travel cross-country-Noreen and Shawn, Noreen's son, Jeffy, and Gabriel -- to Arizona, where the weather stayed warm and dry. Noreen had a soft Southern accent that made the things she said seem original and true, and she knew how to do things like make biscuits from scratch. It had been five months since Shawn and Gabriel moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Fairmont, West Virginia, and sometimes, during that first charmed month, when it was too muggy to sleep, they'd taken their blankets onto the tiny balcony and lain there beneath the stars, talking about the future -- even Jeffy, who was only four and didn't understand what anyone was saying. But the camper had brought one thousand dollars, money that would get them to Wisconsin and feed them until Shawn found work. He handed Gabriel the thick wad of fifties and hundreds, letting him feel its weight. "You'll have to help out with expenses for a while," he said. "A paper route, kiddo, how do you feel about that?"

Gabriel imagined slogging through the snowdrifts, dragging a wet bag of newspapers behind him. "Maybe I could work in a restaurant," he said, although he wasn't sure a ten-year-old could do that kind of thing, even if he was big-boned, the way people said.

"A paper route would be better for you -- exercise, fresh air, all that."

"OK," Gabriel said warily-was his father going to start in on his weight? -- but Shawn stuffed the money back into the deep pocket of his coat and turned on the radio. More soldiers were arriving in Saudi Arabia; aircraft carriers had moved into striking range of the Gulf. "Listen up, son," Shawn said. "There's going to be a war." The sun was gaining strength, bloodying the hoar-frost that clung to the shrubs and the tall wild grasses that poked up through the snow crust at the edges of the highway. They passed an intersection boasting the world's largest collection of rocks, a car dealership with its necklace of bright flags, a nursery selling Christmas trees beneath a yellow-and-white-striped tent. The land was flatter than any place Gabriel could imagine except, perhaps, heaven, with its shining streets of gold. Miss Welch had told the class all about heaven and Jesus Christ, and how, if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be filled with the power of God and could perform any miracle they wished. River Angel. Copyright © by A. Ansay. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide:
The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group's discussion of A. Manette Ansay's RIVER ANGEL. We hope they provide you with fresh ways of looking at this startling novel of secrets and faith in a small town.

About this Book:
Many citizens of Ambient, Wisconsin, believe the old tales of an angel living in the Onion River that runs through the heart of their town. Some claim to have seen it, "small and white as a seagull, hovering just above the water." It is this belief that leads a misfit ten-year-old boy to the river's edge one cold winter's night, where he encounters a band of troubled teenagers from the local high school, out drinking and driving around. Gabriel Carpenter vanishes that night, presumed drowned, though the teenagers tell different--and conflicting--stories. And when dawn comes, his lifeless body is found by Ruthie Mader in a barn a mile away. "His body was warm when I touched it," she says. "There was a small like flowers. And when I saw him there, I thought he was just sleeping."

No one in this quiet Midwestern community can agree whether a miracle or a hoax has occurred. But as the story spreads, and curious tourists overrun the town--some skeptical, others reverent, still others angling for financial gain--one fact becomes certain beyond any doubt: life here will never be the same.

Praise for this Book:
"A writer with a gift for persuasive and shapely narrative. . .With River Angel, A. Manette Ansay has moved beyond her prior mastery of the family scene to a lucid, eloquent representation of the commingled and conflicting lives of atown." --The New York Times Book Review

"Wonderful. . .I feel an overwhelming compulsion to thrust River Angel into people's hands and insist ÔRead this! Now!'. . .Not many writers can top Ansay's insight into character." --Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Ansay rivals Jane Smiley in her ability to bring the small-town Midwest to life. . .a wonderful novel." --Library Journal (Starred Review)

"Absorbing. . .stirring and provocative. . .a complex story intelligently told." --Newark Star-Ledger

Questions for Discussion:
  • Why does the author choose to tell the story from so many different perspectives? What do each of the storytellers add to the broader tale?
  • What's the significance of the name Gabriel, and how does it color how you view his character? Why has the author made the boy, the axis of the story, so unlikable? How do the other characters respond to him, and how does he affect each of them?
  • Gabriel's teacher once told him, "If you believe in something hard enough, if your faith was pure, you could make anything happen" (p. 8). How do these words affect Gabriel? Is his faith responsible for what eventually happens to him?
  • Gabriel says that he prefers to see the world without his glasses, that with them the world "jumped too close and filled with complicated detail" (p. 15). How does his preference for a blurred but beautiful world resonate in the story? What other characters do you think would prefer to experience life without glasses?
  • Do you think Bethany is an admirable person? Do you approve of the way that she's able to keep order in her life, or do you think she is overly rigid? What does it say about her that her son Robert John is Gabriel's biggest tormentor?
  • What makes Anna Grey hate Gabriel so much? And how do her strong feelings reflect what's going on in her own life?
  • When Janey rescues Gabriel from bullies and takes him to her home, why does Gabriel say that his name is Shawn? What do you think this says about how he feels about his father?
  • In chapter five, Big Roly Schmitt is portrayed as a very sympathetic person, but we later learn that other characters hate him and his influence on the town. Why do you think we see such different views of him? Are the other characters right to dislike him? Do you think that his plans for developing the town are positive or negative?
  • What makes Cherish rebel against the life she's always led? Is there any connection between her growing pains and those of the town?
  • How do Cherish's looks affect her? Do you think that the accident will change her for the better or worse? How do you think her life would be different if her father were still alive?
  • Why is it appropriate that Ruthie finds Gabriel? What purpose does the miracle have in her life? Does the fact that Ruthie announces the miracle make it more or less believable?
  • Why is the chapter about the shrine's beginnings told by the parish priest? What does it mean that he is one of the town skeptics? Discuss his idea that the townspeople are "Smorgasbord Catholics" (p. 183). What does this phrase mean to you? Do you think it's true of these characters? Is it a bad thing?
  • Do you think that the celebrity of the shrine and the tourist boom that accompanies it is a good thing or a bad thing for Ambient? What do you think the town's future holds?
  • On page 239, Ruthie considers the miracle and decides, "She'd been called to bear witness--to what, she did not know. Perhaps that was what Cherish was trying to do: bear witness to something Ruthie could not see." Can the idea of bearing witness be considered one of the book's themes? Who bears witness and to what? How does the act of bearing witness change them, strengthen them, or hurt them?
  • What is the purpose of the Ambient Weekly notices that run between the chapters? What do they add to the story? The last notice is from Bethany, who asks for help locating Gabriel's father. Does this message bring some sort of closure to the book? What is its implied commentary on the river angel shrine and, perhaps more important, on Gabriel's short life?
  • About the Author:
    A. MANETTE ANSAY was born in Wisconsin and now lives in New York. She is the author of the novel Sister, winner of the 1996 Banta prize and a New York Times Notable Book, as well as a collection of stories, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, which won the AWP Short Fiction Prize, the 1995 Peterson Prize, and the 1996 Great Lakes Book Award for fiction. Vinegar Hill, the first of her novels, won a Friends of American Writers Prize and was named a Best Book of 1994 by The Chicago Tribune. Ansay's most recent novel, Midnight Champagne, was published in summer 1999.

For your continued reading pleasure, may we suggest the following Avon books, for which reader's group guides are available:

SISTER By Manette Ansay


ZABELLE By Nancy Kricorian



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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2001

    'River Angel' Is A Good Read. Once.

    While 'River Angel' by A. Manette Ansay was a decent book, it was by no means something that I would pick up and re-read again. It started off weak, not really grabbing my interest but I muddled through it anyway. The story, if you would call it that, was confusing due to the many stories of the many characters. The should-be main character, Gabriel, was hardly a main character. He was included in other people's stories, but was not that frequent. He was also a weak character and was easy to dislike, being that he could not stick up for himself. And yet, in the end, when all the stories came together to form a more defined story, it was, in a way, satisfying. There was a slight stress of God's plan, as Gabriel was the most religious 10 year old I've read, not overly exaggerated as in other works ('A Prayer For Owen Meany' by John Irving). It could also be somewhat compared to 'A Walk To Remember' by Nicholas Sparks. It is a satisfying novel in its conclusion and gives one hope in the fact or idea that there is such thing in a 'spiritual force' or 'higher being', while not pushing it down your throat. It renews a sense of hope that many have long forgotten. It is worth reading, though I think that once is good enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2001

    read it, but only once

    Unlike Ansay's other two novels (Sister and Vinegar Hill), River Angel was not immediately enthralling. The beginning was especially disappointing/weak. The plot was confusing, due to the many different stories presented, and the main character (if Gabriel could be called such) was almost other-worldly in his piety. Despite these facts, however, the book was still worth reading for its good points. The plot began to pick up and tie together toward the end, and some of the characters (e.g. Cherish) were much easier to relate to than Gabriel, because of their human faults. Perhaps the book was ultimately saved by the theme of a higher power; we all need something to believe in, and this town stood as an icon for the entire human race. I would recommend that this book be read, but only once.

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