The River Between Us

The River Between Us

4.0 33
by Richard Peck

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The year is 1861. Civil war is imminent and Tilly Pruitt's brother, Noah, is eager to go and fight on the side of the North. With her father long gone, Tilly, her sister, and their mother struggle to make ends meet and hold the dwindling Pruitt family together. Then one night a mysterious girl arrives on a steamboat bound for St. Louis. Delphine is unlike anyone

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The year is 1861. Civil war is imminent and Tilly Pruitt's brother, Noah, is eager to go and fight on the side of the North. With her father long gone, Tilly, her sister, and their mother struggle to make ends meet and hold the dwindling Pruitt family together. Then one night a mysterious girl arrives on a steamboat bound for St. Louis. Delphine is unlike anyone the small river town has even seen. Mrs. Pruitt agrees to take Delphine and her dark, silent traveling companion in as boarders. No one in town knows what to make of the two strangers, and so the rumors fly. Is Delphine's companion a slave? Could they be spies for the South? Are the Pruitts traitors? A masterful tale of mystery and war, and a breathtaking portrait of the lifelong impact one person can have on another.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
It's a riveting story that shows racism everywhere and young people facing war, not sure what side to be on or why. (Booklist, starred review)

Peck reaches new depth with this Civil War-era novel. . . (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

A rich tale full of magic, mystery, and surprise. (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

Historical fiction fans should enter this at the top of the must-read list. (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review)

The harsh realities of war are brutally related in a complex, always surprising plot that resonates on multiple levels. (he Horn Book, starred review)

This unusual Civil War novel really boosts Peck's credentials as America's best living author for young adults. (The Washington Post)

Unforgettable characters and handsome prose make this book one you won't want to miss. (Children's Literature)

USA Today
The book is rich in detail about life along the Mississippi and the limited, late war news that further splits communities. Peck captures the light and dark sides of the Pruitt family, the sweetness of tiny moments, the excruciating pain of a distraught mother's words. He writes life-changing scenes reminiscent of the Atlanta pilgrimage that Scarlett O'Hara makes in Gone With the Wind: Tilly and Delphine are confronted with hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers after an exhausting trip to Cairo, and, like Scarlett, roll up their sleeves and find a strength that neither knew she had. — Lynne Perri
The Washington Post
This unusual Civil War novel really boosts Peck's credentials as America's best living author for young adults. Not only is it a gripping yarn -- about two enigmatic women and a small Southern Illinois town in the momentous first year of the war -- but it is nearly as intricately structured as Wuthering Heights, with multiple narrators and tales-within-tales enhancing both the mystery and the wistfulness of long-ago events. — Elizabeth Ward
Publishers Weekly
In our Best Books citation, PW wrote, "The author crafts his characters impeccably and threads together their fates in surprising ways that shed light on the complicated events of the Civil War." Ages 10-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Richard Peck won a 2000 Newbery for A Year Down Yonder and a 1998 Newbery honor for the prequel, A Long Way from Chicago (both $5.99 from Puffin). Both books are steeped in history and strong characters. So is his newest, The River Between Us . The main character is fifteen-year-old Tilly Pruitt who lives in Grand Tower, a muddy little Mississippi River town. Tilly worries about what the impending Civil War may do to her already threatened family. The situation is gripping, but it's Tilly's voice that captures readers with a the mix of humor and homespun that shone in Peck's other books. Soon a second character enters who sets mystery into motion. On a "velvet night" a ship arrives from New Orleans and two figures come down the plank, back lit by the boat's lanterns. One, Delphine Duval, is a beauty, encased in taffeta and satins. The other is dressed plainly and it is quickly assumed she is Delphine's maidservant. The two take up residence at Tilly's home and the family is immediately struck with Delphine's fine manners, elegant possessions, and generosity. Delphine is shrouded in mystery of the exotic New Orleans life she describes and "her conversation was a lacework fan that opened and closed, concealing and revealing." The strength of the two characters and the relationship they establish transcends the horrors of war and the prejudices of gender and race, and highlight lesser known historical facts and make them real. 2003, Dial, Ages 11 up.
— Susie Wilde
This latest historical novel by Peck will win critical acclaim and also appeal to YA readers, even high school readers. It is set during the Civil War in a little town along the Mississippi River, where a family lives slightly apart from their neighbors. Tilly is surprised when her mother takes in two strange young women, Delphine and Calinda, journeying up the river from New Orleans as the war begins. Delphine is enchanting and Tilly is surprised to learn they are about the same age; 15. Tilly's older brother Noah is definitely fascinated. And Calinda understands Tilly's strange little sister, who sees visions; mostly visions of horror to come. The horror, of course, is the war. Noah joins the Northern army, and after a terrible battle nearby, Tilly and Delphine go to find him wounded in the ghastly hospital tents and eventually save his life, with the help of a young Army doctor. Peck tells the story by peeling off layers, saving the best surprise for the end, which I won't give away here. His mechanism is introducing the family history through the eyes of a boy living in 1916, whose father, a doctor, takes the boy to visit his elderly relatives; Tilly, Noah, Delphine, and Dr. Hutchings; before he himself goes off to Europe to take care of the wounded in another Great War. The narrative voice shifts to Tilly at 15, who relates the events of 1861, before returning in the final chapter to the boy in 1916 once again. Peck has achieved the highest awards for his work in children's literature, and this novel is among his best work for YAs. KLIATT Codes: JS*; Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2003, Penguin Putnam, Dial, 164p.,
— Claire Rosser
Mixing vibrant characters, a gripping plot, and historical facts, Peck cooks a literary gumbo worthy of New Orleans' finest chefs. (Or "Nouvelle Orleans" as character Delphine would say.) Irksome dialect aside, this book is sumptuous. Fifteen-year-old Howard's story in the Model-T era complements grandmother Tillie's story of fifty-five years earlier, when she has enough troubles with her sister's visions and her brother facing war. Then two Louisiana women waltz into their lives, with southern drawls and surprises beneath their petticoats. The town starts whispering, the Civil War begins, and Tillie's life changes forever. Peck spices up his stew with showboats, apparitions, romance, battle, and twists around every corner in this great read, even for those who dislike historical fiction. VOYA Codes: 5Q 4P M J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003, Dial, 176p,
— Jing Cao, Teen Reviewer
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-In the opening days of the Civil War, a genteel but worldly wise young woman and her companion step off a steamboat from New Orleans onto the dock of a provincial Illinois town. This richly told and evocatively realized novel tells how the strangers are taken into the Pruitts' home (and into their hearts), changing all of the characters' lives forever. Winner of the 2003 Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Imagine an age when there were still people around who'd seen U.S. Grant with their own eyes, and men who'd voted for Lincoln." Fifteen-year-old Howard Leland Hutchings visits his father's family in Grand Tower, Illinois, in 1916, and meets four old people who raised his father. The only thing he knows about them is that they lived through the Civil War. Grandma Tilly, slender as a girl but with a face "wrinkled like a walnut," tells Howard their story. Sitting up on the Devil's Backbone overlooking the Mississippi River, she "handed over the past like a parcel." It's a story of two mysterious women from New Orleans, of ghosts, soldiers, and seers, of quadroons, racism, time, and the river. Peck writes beautifully, bringing history alive through Tilly's marvelous voice and deftly handling themes of family, race, war, and history. A rich tale full of magic, mystery, and surprise. (author's note) (Fiction. 12+)

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Product Details

Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.42(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.42(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt


“Where is he?” Delphine demanded to know, gazing about for anything resembling a hospital.

“There are six regimental hospitals,” Dr. Hutchings said. “Those three tents are one of them.”

“We go there.” Delphine hiked her shortened skirts.

“Oh no, Miss Duval.” The doctor put out a hand to bar her way—never a good idea. “No women—ladies—are allowed in the hospital tents. It’s entirely for your own good. The men are in their underwear, and there are no blankets and . . .” Dr. Hutchings was getting right down to the end of his rope.

Delphine had drawn up to her almost five feet without the heeled slippers. She glanced back at me, and her veiled eyes sparked their dark fire. “This girl’s brother is in that tent. Is it so?”

Dr. Hutchings admitted it was.

“You are not an officer to command me. And me, I am not a soldier.” She pointed herself out with a gloved finger. “And if I was, I wouldn’t be soldiering on this side. Get the quilt,” she said to me.

The doctor was this close to wringing his hands. “Truly, Miss Pruitt,” he said as we bore down on the tent flap, “I can’t permit—” But it would have taken five or six men his size to keep us out. I wanted my brother.



Are You in the House Alone?

The Dreadful Future of Blossom Culp

Dreamland Lake

Fair Weather

Father Figure

The Ghost Belonged to Me

Ghosts I Have Been

Invitations to the World

A Long Way from Chicago

Lost in Cyberspace

Past Perfect, Present Tense

The River Between Us

Strays Like Us

The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts

A Year Down Yonder



Table of Contents

The Model T Ford Touring Car


Chapter One

To me, the best part was that we’d make the trip by car. When I say car, I mean a Ford, of course, a Model T touring car, and they don’t make them like that anymore. In those days it was a big thing to drive a car out of town, let alone a hundred miles each way of Southern Illinois dirt road. I thought the journey itself was going to be the adventure.

My dad made house calls in the Ford. He was a very well-thought-of doctor in the St. Louis of that time. A tall man with black curly hair parted in the middle and steel-rimmed spectacles gripping the bridge of his nose. He wore high celluloid collars, and I never saw him without a necktie.

I thought he carried all the wisdom of the world in the black bag that traveled to house calls with him on the front seat of the Ford. With the same silent skill that he used to set a bone, he could patch a tire.

Apparently, my dad had been young once, but I couldn’t picture it. Even at the age of fifteen I knew but little about who he was and where he’d come from. And so I knew but little about myself.

My dad was what they called a self-made man. Though he’d succeeded in St. Louis, he’d come from a little town called Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River down low in Illinois.

All I knew of Dad’s people was that they’d lived through the Civil War. Imagine an age when there were still people around who’d seen U. S. Grant with their own eyes, and men who’d voted for Lincoln. People you could reach out and touch.

My dad’s father, the first Dr. William Hutchings, had been a doctor in the Union Army. My grandmother and grandfather Hutchings still lived in what Dad called the homeplace, down in Grand Tower, that wide spot in the road.

I couldn’t remember visiting them before. My mother was very standoffish about my dad’s side of the family. She was a St. Louis girl, and we boys were named for her side of the family. I was Howard Leland Hutchings. My little brothers, twins, were Raymond and Earl. At the age of five, they were too young to figure much in this story, but they came along on the trip too.

Dad worked a six-and-a-half-day week. It was a great occasion when he found an afternoon to take me to a Browns game. That was before the Browns forsook St. Louis to be the Baltimore Orioles.

But now he had announced that we were going to visit his folks—motoring there and back in the Ford. It was the summer of 1916, and war was raging across Europe, the Great War. Dad said it was just a question of time before America got in it. In wartime there’d be restrictions on travel, and so it was now or never.

The next thing I remember is the morning we left, like the dawn of creation. It was a July day breathless with St. Louis heat and the thrill of the open road unwinding before us. Our preparations had taken days. We’d been through the toolbox time and again. We’d filled as many cans of gasoline as we could strap to the running boards. Dad had personally filed down the points on the spark plugs. I hadn’t slept a wink in two nights, and now the moment of leaving was upon us.

Mother wasn’t going and didn’t want us to go. And I didn’t know why. I remember her up on the porch and the Ford there in the middle of Maryland Avenue. Dad and I wore dusters and caps with goggles. One of the extra features of our Ford was a windshield. But it was always laid flat across the hood for city driving. The Ford was a touring car, which meant it had a canvas pull-up roof in case of rain, or for when you spent a night on the road.

You had to crank the car a good ten minutes to get it going, and Dad left that part to me. The knack for starting a Ford was to jack up a rear wheel. He got the little boys settled on the rear seat, but they kept spilling out of the car, running back to the house for something they’d forgotten. I wondered if we’d ever get away.

But at last the engine caught and turned over. The Ford coughed twice and came to life. Dad broke a fresh egg into the radiator so that it would hard-boil and seal the leaks. The boys were more or less settled. Dad let out the brake and fiddled with the gas lever. We’d already aroused the neighborhood. Now we were off in a volley of sharp reports from the tailpipe. And Mother was turning back to the house.

I ought to have kept a journal of the trip, but that’s not the way of a fifteen-year-old boy. I remember we were hardly over on the Illinois side before Earl learned he was subject to car sickness and Raymond was hit with a great wave of homesickness. Dad had something in his black bag for Earl. He cured Raymond by saying it wasn’t too late to take him back home and leave him behind.

Dad’s plan was to keep the Mississippi River on our right side and try to be in the vicinity of Chester, Illinois, by nightfall. We made good time on dry roads south from Dupo and didn’t have our first flat until very near Waterloo. In all, we did pretty well with only four flats that day, one in each tire. But it seemed like the Ford was on a jack more than it was on the road. We pumped the tires up by hand. The last sign we saw for free air was outside Columbia.

The little boys needed a steady flow of water from the bottles we’d brought. This made for endless stops at the side of the road. This was a strictly men-only expedition, so we occasionally all four stood in a row over a ditch when the road was empty both directions. An hour of driving would pass before we’d see another car.

We’d pull up by open pasture and drop a ruler into the tank to gauge the gas level. The tank was set in right under the front seats, so it was like riding a bomb, though I never heard of one going off. On our stops, the boys could run wild in the field, wrestling and tussling and mauling each other like puppies. I couldn’t remember being that age.

While we were watching them, Dad said, “Twins run in families and tend to skip a generation.”

“Was your dad a twin?”

“My mother and her brother are twins. You’ll meet Noah. They all live together in the homeplace. My dad and mother and my aunt and uncle. People lived however they could in years past, sharing out what they had. Seemed like most of my dad’s patients paid him in fish out of the river and vegetables out of their gardens. A doctor doesn’t get rich in Grand Tower.”

“So you had four parents,” I said.

“In a manner of speaking, I did.” Dad watched the boys. “It wasn’t a bad way to grow up. They taught me how to make do, and to keep my private business private. Pretty good lessons.”

Down around Red Bud the ruts were deeper, and there was more standing water. We were getting farther into Southern Illinois, the territory they call Egypt for some reason. The farms were hardscrabble yellow clay. They plowed around trees growing clumped in the middles of fields. Two or three hills were so steep that we had to turn the Ford around and go up in reverse. So when the sun was getting down in the west, it was time to call it a day.

Two things my dad mistrusted: water from an unfamiliar well and all hotel rooms on the Illinois side of the river. He could give you a short and sweet scientific description of the common bedbug that made you happy to spend the night on the same car seat you’d bounced along on all day.

We pulled off the road just at dusk and built a little campfire. The boys found sticks to roast wienies on. Now we were early explorers, of the Lewis and Clark party, sitting cross-legged around the wilderness fire. Dad sat just out of the glow on the running board. With any luck, we’d be in Grand Tower tomorrow night by this time.

He must have wondered what the place would look like to us city boys who until today had thought the whole world was paved.

“There never was a lot to Grand Tower,” he said, “though it showed some progress after the war. When I was a boy, they had a saddle factory, a cigar plant, a gunsmith shop or two, a brick works. Enos Walker started a sawmill that peeled logs and made strips for splint baskets. My uncle Noah worked there for years.”

The little boys’ eyes were glazing over. “But it’s not much more than a ghost town now,” Dad remarked.

This alerted the boys. They looked around with big eyes. The trees were black with night, and now they noticed where they were. “A ghost town isn’t quite the same thing as a ghost,” Dad said. But seeing he had their full attention, he added, “Of course, every little old town had a haunt or two.”

From back in the trees came the rushing of some night bird’s wings. The rusty creak of a turning windpump sounded across the darkness.

“There’s a hill over the town called the Devil’s Backbone,” Dad said.

Ghosts and now the devil. He had us in the palm of his hand.

“The house where I grew up straddles the Backbone about halfway along. Now a road runs between the Backbone and the river. A ghost or something very like it has been seen crossing that road on dark nights like this.”

I suspected Dad was playing up the story for us, but it worked on me like a charm. The boys were about in each other’s laps.

“It’s a woman,” Dad said, “in old-time skirts with gray hair streaming down her back. She’ll dart out in the road, running hard, making for the river, where she seems to throw herself in. It’s been reported for years. Any number of horses have shied, and buggies turned over. There are people who won’t go down that road after dark.”

Steadying my voice, I said, “Dad, did you ever see . . . anything?”

“Not me.” He stood up, working the kinks out of his back. “You know how these old stories grow in the telling.” But then he added, “I don’t know what my mother thought. I know she didn’t like to hear talk about that particular ghost. Too close to home, I suppose.”

Then we were all too sleepy to make it through another moment. We pulled up the roof of the Ford and rolled the boys in car rugs to settle them on the backseat. They were joyous at turning in for the first time in their lives with dirty faces and necks. Dad drifted off, sitting bolt upright behind the wheel with his necktie in place. The rusty sound of the distant windpump turned in my dreams until daylight.

We made it to Grand Tower by the next afternoon, though we’d overheated at Rockwood. The road nearly played out past Fountain Bluff. Then we were coming down a last hill, above the town, steeping like tea in the deep summer damp.

Above the town Dad pointed out a long, sharp-backed hill as the Devil’s Backbone. Across the river on the Missouri side another stone outcropping rose straight out of the water. This was Tower Rock, and it gave the town its name, Dad said.

The whole heat-hazed place looked as old as the rocks it nestled among. It didn’t seem likely to me that anybody had ever been young here.

We drove up the Backbone as near to the house as we could get. I remember it now like a moving-picture show of that time, without sound and all in black and white.

I see the little old lady on the porch with her hands in her apron. Grandma Tilly: a tiny face wrinkled like a walnut, and wisps of hair drawn back in a knot. Behind her apron she’s slender as a girl, and there’s something young about her. She dances with the pleasure of seeing Dad stride up the hill. To her, he’s “young Bill,” we’re young Bill’s boys. She’s been waiting for this moment.

Behind her in a rocker is her husband, older than she is, ancient. Waxy with age, trapped by the years and his chair, but alive behind his eyes. He has a shock of fine white hair and a curling, somehow military mustache. He wears a once-ivory alpaca suit in this stifling afternoon, and a high collar under his chins. He’s too old to stand, but his loose-boned, veiny hand comes out to Dad, and his eyes are wet.

The camera of my memory ducks under the tin-roofed porch and enters the house as everybody did, through the kitchen door. A black iron range stands before the old open hearth. A door to the hall shows the way upstairs. There are big square bedrooms above, smelling of old times, and the old. A big chest of drawers stands in the upstairs hall. Beyond it in the best room that looks out on the river is Dad’s aunt Delphine, in a four-poster bed.

The room hangs in lavender scent. It’s so crowded with things, you could miss a smaller woman in the bed. But my great-aunt is very stout. Her hands, restless on the turned-back sheet, look like little pillows. Rings are embedded in her fingers. She’s propped below a picture on the wall of a man with yellow hair in an old-fashioned costume.

She turns startling violet eyes on us. Under her beribboned bed cap, her black hair is in ringlets like a girl’s. She has a faint mustache. When she sees my dad, her plump hands fly to her mouth, and the tears flow in dark streaks down her face.

In the moving picture memory makes, Great-uncle Noah is under the window of his wife’s room, weeding one-handed in the heat of the day. But that can’t be. The garden ran down from the far side of the house, and Uncle Noah would have been on the porch with his sister Tilly to greet us. He was certainly there on the day we left—only a little bent over, in his shirtsleeves, one of them pinned up above the missing arm.

In the first moments of our visit, even the little boys were all eyes. They’d been promised snakes around the woodshed and catfish they could catch themselves. They’d banked on shoeless days and bathless nights. But just for a moment they were caught in the grip of this place. They felt the weight of its history, and mystery.

So did I. The paper was loose and peeling on the walls. I wondered how many layers you’d have to scrape away until you came to the time when these old people were young. If they ever were.

I wondered how quiet you’d have to be to hear the voices of those times.

The House Astride the Devil’s Backbone


Chapter Two

“Tilly!” Mama called out to me from the kitchen. “Go find Cass.”

The sun was winking away behind the big rock across the river. Tower Rock, standing high out of the water. A grove of trees grew over the top of it. Tower Rock rose on the other bank of the river and our Devil’s Backbone here on the Illinois side. A dangerous stretch of river ran between—our stretch of the river.

Even though Tower Rock was over in Missouri, with the river between us, it gave our town its name: Grand Tower. Nobody wanted to live in a town named after the devil.

It wasn’t any use to holler for Cass from the porch. Up in her private places on her hill, she was deaf unto the world. Cass was a terrible worry to Mama, and I thought anything that worried Mama ought to worry me.

As quick as the sun was down, a chill came off the water. It was the end of April with some spring showing, time for the river to stir itself. Word had reached us that the ice was breaking up below St. Paul and rotting above Dubuque. We’d had the packet boats down from Quincy and St. Louis. But we needed the Southern boats to keep us in business. And only days ago President Abe Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade on the Southern ports.

Last month when Lincoln was inaugurated as the President of the United States, we’d built bonfires down by the landing to celebrate—show him the way to Washington, as people said. Few were for him, of course. You had to set fire to the woods and sift the ashes to find a Republican around here. But Lincoln was an Illinois man, one of us.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
It's a riveting story that shows racism everywhere and young people facing war, not sure what side to be on or why. (Booklist, starred review)

Peck reaches new depth with this Civil War-era novel. . . (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

A rich tale full of magic, mystery, and surprise. (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

Historical fiction fans should enter this at the top of the must-read list. (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review)

The harsh realities of war are brutally related in a complex, always surprising plot that resonates on multiple levels. (he Horn Book, starred review)

This unusual Civil War novel really boosts Peck's credentials as America's best living author for young adults. (The Washington Post)

Unforgettable characters and handsome prose make this book one you won't want to miss. (Children's Literature)

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