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River of the Brokenhearted

River of the Brokenhearted

by David Adams Adams Richards

In the 1920s, Janie McLeary and George King run one of the first movie theatres in the Maritimes. The marriage of the young Irish Catholic woman to an older English man is thought scandalous, but they work happily together, playing music to accompany the films. When George succumbs to illness and dies, leaving Janie with one young child and another on the way, the


In the 1920s, Janie McLeary and George King run one of the first movie theatres in the Maritimes. The marriage of the young Irish Catholic woman to an older English man is thought scandalous, but they work happily together, playing music to accompany the films. When George succumbs to illness and dies, leaving Janie with one young child and another on the way, the unscrupulous Joey Elias tries to take over the business. But Janie guards the theatre with a shotgun, and still in mourning, re-opens it herself. “If there was no real bliss in Janie’s life,” recounts her grandson, “there were moments of triumph.”

One night, deceived by the bank manager and Elias into believing she will lose her mortgage, Janie resolves to go and ask for money from the Catholic houses. Elias has sent out men to stop her, so she leaps out the back window and with a broken rib she swims in the dark across the icy Miramichi River, doubting her own sanity. Yet, seeing these people swayed into immoral actions because of their desire to please others and their fear of being outcast, she thinks to herself that “…all her life she had been forced to act in a way uncommon with others… Was sanity doing what they did? And if it was, was it moral or justified to be sane?”

Astonishingly, she finds herself face to face that night with influential Lord Beaverbrook, who sees in her tremendous character and saves her business. Not only does she survive, she prospers; she becomes wealthy, but ostracized. Even her own father helps Elias plot against her. Yet Janie McLeary King thwarts them and brings first-run talking pictures to the town.

Meanwhile, she employs Rebecca from the rival Druken family to look after her children. Jealous, and a protégé of Elias, Rebecca mistreats her young charges. The boy Miles longs to be a performer, but Rebecca convinces him he is hated, and he inherits his mother’s enemies. The only person who truly loves her, he is kept under his mother’s influence until, eventually, he takes a job as the theatre’s projectionist. He drinks heavily all his life, tends his flowers, and talks of things no-one believes, until the mystery at the heart of the novel finally unravels.

“At six I began to realize that my father was somewhat different,” says Miles King’s son Wendell, who narrates the saga in an attempt to find answers in the past and understand “how I was damned.” It is a many-layered epic of rivalries, misunderstandings, rumours; the abuse of power, what weak people will do for love, and the true power of doing right; of a pioneer and her legacy in the lives of her son and grandchildren.

“David Adams Richards is perhaps the greatest Canadian writer alive,” wrote Lynn Coady in the Vancouver Sun. From this winner of the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award comes a story of a woman’s determined struggle against small town prejudice, and her son’s long battle against deceit. Richards’ own family ran Newcastle’s Uptown Theatre from 1911 to 1980, and Janie is based on his grandmother. Cast upon this history is a drama that explores morality and “the question of how one should live,” as The Atlantic Monthly said of Mercy Among the Children, his previous novel.

Reviewers agree that Richards’ fiction sits firmly in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by concerning itself explicitly with good and evil and the human freedom to choose between them. Once again, in River of the Brokenhearted, his twelfth novel, Richards has created a work of compassion and assured, poetic sophistication which finds in the hearts of its characters venality and goodwill, cruelty and love.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
River of the Brokenhearted is a distinguished addition to a body of work that has to be considered the equal of any other in Canadian literature.”
National Post

“Richards is a painfully sharp observer, who possesses one of the most distinct and compelling voices in contemporary literature.”
Toronto Star

“[A] century from now readers will discover in Richards’ novels the same heartbreaking treasures we find in the novels of Thomas Hardy.”
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“Richards is as Shakespearian in his tragicomic humour as in his elemental themes of good and evil, hatred and love . . . . a magnificent tale of forgiveness . . . ablaze with . . . gnarled, powerful and unblinking prose that follows his characters down to their innermost circles of personal hell — and the deep, unfashionable, moral vision that underlies the writing.”

“As a pure storyteller, Richards has it all over . . . just about every male writer in this country . . . River of the Brokenhearted delivers a highly readable study in kinds of damnation that are as common in the towers of Bay Street as on the banks of the Miramichi.”
The Globe and Mail

River of the Brokenhearted is a wonderful, sad novel that reflects our capacity for strength, loyalty and forgiveness. With its strong sense of justice, this book is also a testament to the power of faith — in all its many forms.”
Edmonton Journal

“It’s hard to believe that a single imagination can produce characters as large as these, but it has been done here.”
The Hamilton Spectator

Product Details

Doubleday Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt


The graves of the Drukens and the McLearys are spread across the Miramichi River valley. If you go there you might find them — “run across them” is not the exact phrase one might want to use for graves — in certain villages and towns. I don’t think we have hamlets here, but if we do, then in certain hamlets as well.

What is revealing about these graves is their scarcity. The scant way they are impressed upon the soil, dispersed here and there about the river. A river that stretches 250 miles from the heart of our province, a river of lumbering and fish and of forests running tangled to the water’s edge. Our ancestors came and founded communities, and over time abandoned them for the greater lumbering towns of Newcastle and Chatham, so that only graves are left. One might go years without stumbling upon one, and when one finally does, an immediate reaction might be to say: “Why in Christ is old Lucy Druken buried way out here?”

I suppose some of the brightest of my relatives have lain forgotten for decades in the woods, forgotten even by their own descendants, in fields that have become orchards or mushroomed into forests again, the descendants having moved on, first to the towns and then west to the cities of Montreal or Toronto, or south to the great and frantic United States. The graves’ occupants unremembered. Yet in what love and sorrow might they have been placed?

Two hundred years have passed to find what is left of us still here. Last October I came back from the train station in the debilitating gloom of a rain-soaked autumn day. He had demanded the key that morning, when I said I was leaving.

He spoke to me in his slightly limey way — being the only memory he ever retained of his father, and so the thing he held onto, come hell or high water, for a memory gone over sixty years. A limey with a Miramichi brogue.

“Yes — well, then — you can just give me the key, can you not — leave it here” His hand shook as he pointed to the table. “And we will think no more of it; I will not even call you a traitor — just remember I could not leave people in the lurch — as much as I wanted to — if they were lurching I’d stay!” he said turning away at that moment.

I found it hanging upon a string outside the winter door, waiting. I came into our small house, with the broken mirror in the foyer, to find him sitting in his straight-backed chair in the absolute middle of the small den, equidistant from the memorabilia of both British and Irish roots — the cross of Saint George and a broken Irish bagpipe, staring out at me in perplexity, his hair now thin against his fine head, his tie done up very properly, hankie in his breast pocket, dark high socks and well-polished shoes on his feet. Each shoe tied with a small bowed lace, which never really did anything but make my heart go out to him — especially when I realized it took upward of fifteen minutes to get each shoe on. He was drinking some mixture of aftershave and vermouth — a pleasant enough concoction, he said, to starve off his “dearth” of gin gimlet he might on occasion — at two in the morning, or five in the afternoon–go searching for. I told him I did not have anything on me — no Scotch or rum.

“Do you know,” he said to me, “you are absolutely right, my lad. I have been thinking of giving it all up.”

“What up?” I say, turning away so he will not see the gin I have tucked in my tweed jacket.

“This place — this house — sell it and go away! Is that a gin cap I spy —”

“Where?” I say, looking about the room. Trying to make no sudden moves, I pick up a cushion and hold it against my pocket.

“That cap?” He clears his throat.

“What cap?”

“Why, my son, the cap on the gin bottle — you have glided a cushion over it.”

“Glided a cushion?”

“Is it glided — I’m not sure —?”

His fingers tremble just slightly. He is looking around for something — a cigarette, I suppose.

I take the gin out, hold it before me like a newborn infant.

“Yes — there it is — you are a saviour — I always knew you were — and foolish me in the process of changing my will — wondering who to leave all of this to” — he waved his hand abstractly. “You just went out to get me some gin —”

I go into the kitchen, get the glasses and pour out our libation.

“Gin’s the drink,” he says, smacking his lips and looking at the two glasses to see if they are perfectly symmetrical. He takes his, shakes just a bit getting it to his lip and, confident his immediate plight is over, downs it in a draught.

“You found the key all right?” he says.


I came back once to find 223 newborn baby chickens in the house. I believe it occurred when he upset a crate of chicks somewhere in his travels. He was imprinted on them and they followed him home. He came in the house, the front door left ajar, picked up the letter opener to open his increasingly oppressive pile of bills, and saw 223 little yellow chicks staring at him. He opened the door and told them to go. They did not. He then tried to hide them in the dresser drawers, and keep this from me when I came in.

“Do not say one damn thing about what you see in this house,” he said.

I found them walking the halls, sitting on his lap, as he pretended not to notice. In fact, he remained until I bundled them up and took them away, ruefully dismissive of us all.

“I will not go,” I say to him after our gin.

“And why not?” he asks. “Why won’t you go wherever it is you are wanting to — go?”

“Because you’re my father and someone needs to stay with you.”

“Oh — well then — I see — very noble of you — Wendell my boy. Lets drink to nobility.”

I guess I can drink to that as much as anyone.

My father Miles King once told me that some are damned by blood, by treason, by chance or circumstance, some even by the stars themselves, or as Shakespeare, denying that, said, by ourselves. This in a way is a journey back in time to see how I was damned.

My name is Wendell King, and I have looked for these forgotten places, and found them in their quietude and hope, and have gone to the archives, reading old tracts, deeds, family history, searching out what I can, to try to dislodge the secrets that have plagued my father’s life.

Meet the Author

Born in 1950 in Newcastle, New Brunswick, the third of six children, David Adams Richards found his calling at the age of fourteen after reading Oliver Twist. He had never read a novel before, and was first disappointed that there were no pictures. Then he picked up the Dickens novel almost by accident one day, and after reading it was determined to become a novelist.

He studied literature at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, attended an informal weekly writing workshop, received encouragement from established writers and published a book of poetry. When the first five chapters of the novel he was working on, The Coming of Winter, won the Norma Epstein Prize for Creative Writing in 1973, he left university to write full-time; the book was published the following year, and translated into Russian.

He then pursued a life of writing with extraordinary resolve, in spite of the small rewards early on. Leaving university without a degree meant giving up the possibility of an academic career. Instead, he took ticket stubs at his father’s theatre in Newcastle; “I came from a family that did all right, but after I got out on my own, from age 19 to 27, I had almost no money. I cut my own wood for the winter with an axe one year.” For his first five novels, he didn’t have a reading outside his province of New Brunswick.

However, in 1985 his fifth work of fiction, Road to the Stilt House, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, and soon he was recognised as one of the ten best Canadian writers under 45. In 1988 he won the Governor General’s Award for Nights Below Station Street, and was named by Maclean’s magazine as a Canadian who made a difference; he began to win various other literary awards. Ten years later he won a second Governor General’s Award for his memoir Lines on the Water, becoming one of only three writers to win for both fiction and non-fiction (along with Mordecai Richler and Hugh MacLennan).

Still, it was not until his 2000 novel Mercy Among the Children that he made a real breakthrough internationally; the novel received effusive praise and was a national bestseller for months. The epic story of a man’s pact with God and its far-reaching impact on his family’s destiny, it was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Award, and won the prestigious Giller Prize. In the U.S., it was given the Editors’ Choice award by The Atlantic Monthly. The Washington Post called it “a contemporary masterpiece that, in the tradition of Tolstoy, Camus and Melville, reminds us that redemption is to be found in the suffering of innocents.”

Like his literary heroes Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte, Richards evokes universal human struggles through the events of a small, rural place, where one person’s actions impact inevitably on others in a web of interconnectedness. The TLS, comparing Richards to Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence and Alistair MacLeod, says, “Like them, Richards is a regional writer, but not in a limiting sense; circumscription of place concentrates and clarifies the universal issues of motive and moral responsibility.”

Each of his sixteen books of poetry, essays and fiction is set in rural communities of New Brunswick’s Miramichi Valley. After years of travelling, Richards found he could write about the region regardless of where he lived; he says, “I carry what I do inside.” He portrays real rural men and women, brilliant and strong characters in spite of their deprived lives, sometimes based on people he grew up with. Wayne Johnston, hearing Richards read in 1983, was struck by the author’s unqualified love for all his characters.

Richards’ meditation on fishing, Lines on the Water, and his earlier book Hockey Dreams, reflect enduring childhood passions; his interests beyond literature and history are hockey, boxing, hunting, and fly-fishing on the Miramichi River. His love for the place and its people permeates his work, while his belief in the existence of good and evil and human choice between them, his ability to catch what Maclean’s magazine called “the beauty and loneliness of the search for moral truth,” gives it an uplifting quality. He admits there are hard lessons in his books, but hopes there is joyousness too. “It’s more optimistic than not.”

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