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The Sabbathday River

The Sabbathday River

4.3 4
by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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One warm September morning in 1985, Naomi Roth finds the drowned body of a newborn baby girl floating in the Sabbathday River. The community rapidly fingers Heather Pratt, a young single mother, as the prime suspect. But when the body of a second infant is found, Heather is charged with both deaths. In this new work, Korelitz, also author of A Jury of Her Peers


One warm September morning in 1985, Naomi Roth finds the drowned body of a newborn baby girl floating in the Sabbathday River. The community rapidly fingers Heather Pratt, a young single mother, as the prime suspect. But when the body of a second infant is found, Heather is charged with both deaths. In this new work, Korelitz, also author of A Jury of Her Peers, has written a powerful, hypnotically readable novel about life in a small town.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
A River of Death Passion, betrayal, and infanticide are at the core of Jean Hanff Korelitz's latest novel, The Savvathday River , a riveting tale set in a small New England town ruled by rigid values and minimal tolerance. Utterly chilling in its depiction of both a horrifying crime and the narrow-mindedness of small-town America, the Sabbathday River is an unnerving yet fascinating treatise on the darker side of humanity. It's 1985 at the peak of the picturesque fall season in the tiny, ultraconservative town of Goddard, New Hampshire. Forty-something Naomi Roth is jogging along the Sabbathday River when she spots what she thinks is someone's doll floating in the water. But to her horror, Naomi discovers the doll is actually the body of a newborn baby girl: pale, lifeless, and bearing a puncture mark through her tiny chest.

Naomi carries the dead baby to the local police station, and suspicion quickly turns to young Heather Pratt, already shunned by the townsfolk for her flagrant adulterous affair with Ashley Deacon, a local married man. Heather has already given birth to an illegitimate child of Ashley's — a daughter named Polly — coincidentally within days of Ashley's wife bearing him a son. Heather's sins are compounded when she continues her affair with Ashley after Polly's birth and then further offends the sensibilities of several locals by breast-feeding her daughter in public, an act that angers a local storekeeper so much she ends up calling in the police.

Then Heather's world falls apart when her only living relative, hergrandmother,dies and Ashley breaks off their relationship abruptly and crudely. Heartbroken, Heather becomes reclusive and withdrawn, but townsfolk notice as the months go by that she appears to be pregnant again. And when the police pay Heather a visit while investigating the murder of the baby in the river, they discover she has recently given birth, though there is no baby to be found.

Subjected to an arduous and questionable interrogation by the local D.A., Heather at first denies that she was pregnant at all, then admits to having a baby that was stillborn, which she buried in a pond behind her house. But she insists that her baby was not the one that was pulled from the river. Heather's story is supported by the discovery of a second infant's body in the very pond she described. Yet rather than seeing this as evidence of her innocence with regard to the first baby's death, the D.A. constructs an intricate and somewhat bizarre scenario that fingers Heather for the death of both babies.

Naomi feels compelled to try to help Heather. For one thing, Heather is Naomi's star employee in the cooperative she put together to create and sell homemade quilts, rugs, and samplers, an effort that has blossomed into a highly successful catalogue business. But Naomi also feels a bond with the ostracized Heather in that Naomi, too, has been treated like an outsider by the townspeople despite having moved to the area nine years before.

In fact, the only person Naomi can truly call a friend is Judith Friedman, a lawyer and fellow ex-New Yorker who recently moved to the area with her husband. Naomi eventually convinces Judith to take on Heather's defense, which only solidifies the women's position as outcasts. While the story posed by the D.A. seems utterly far-fetched and ridiculous at first, bits of evidence are gradually uncovered that make it more and more believable, though no less shocking.

Heather's trial is depicted in salacious and intricate detail, a dramatic climax that raises as many questions as it answers. All the loose threads are eventually sewn into place, creating a tapestry of twisted values, chaotic morality, and unsettling insights that is totally absorbing and utterly unforgettable. The Sabbathday River delivers a scalding commentary on self-righteous intolerance, then offers up a number of appropriate and wholly satisfying comeuppances. In the end, Korelitz punctuates it all with a few surprising and provocative twists that cast a new light over all that came before, giving readers pause to reconsider their own hard-held values.

—Beth Amos

Beth Amos is the author of several mainstream suspense thrillers, includingSecond Sight, Eyes of Night and Cold White Fury . She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is at work on her next novel.

Polly Morrice
Jean Hanff Korelitz's engrossing second novel is a tale of adultery, infanticide and needlework. The Sabbathday River unfolds in 1985 in Goddard, New Hampshire, a tight-lipped, narrow-minded sort of place that could be a sister city to the inbred hamlets of Deliverance. Naomi Roth, the heroine, remains an outsider in Goddard despite her nine years' residence. Along with stimulating the local economy by running a successful crafts collective, Naomi sets the plot in motion with her discovery of a dead baby girl floating in the Sabbathday River.

At first, the county district attorney assumes the infant is hers -- a wounding irony, as Naomi has recently divorced her husband over his refusal to have children. But the DA's suspicions soon fix on another outsider: Heather Pratt, a Dartmouth dropout, who has carried on an open affair with a married man and borne a child by him. For these sins and for her obliviousness to public opinion, Heather and her baby are shunned by the townspeople. When she breastfeeds in public, an outraged storekeeper calls the police. (Korelitz clearly enjoys drawing parallels to another literary adulteress: Her Heather, who sews for Naomi's collective, embroiders a sampler "with an outsize A of deepest red in the upper-left corner").

Within days of Naomi's grim discovery, Heather is "invited" to the police station and subjected to relentless interrogation by the district attorney, Robert Charter. Under duress, she confesses to killing the baby found in the Sabbathday River. To Naomi, the only person in Goddard who has stood by her, Heather insists she has never harmed anyone. When the body of a second infant is found, Naomi has reason to champion Heather's innocence. Charter, however, accuses the young woman of murdering two newborns.

Here the novel shifts into high courtroom drama, pitting Charter, whose case leans heavily on coincidence and self-righteousness, against Heather's public defender, Judith Friedman. Like Naomi, Judith is a New Yorker and Jewish -- two traits that Goddard distrusts -- and the two women become close friends. Judith bluntly tells Naomi that she is fighting more for women's rights than for Heather; even Naomi, who has felt compelled "to speak for the one they had already condemned," doesn't much like this "sluggish, lackluster girl."

The account of Heather's trial is vividly realized, particularly Judith's masterful cross-examination of Heather's callous lover. Yet Korelitz is aiming for more than a suspenseful yarn; she seeks also to explore the big issues of religious faith, women's sexuality and the evaporation of the radical spirit of the '60s and '70s.

She is less successful handling these large themes, perhaps because the allegorical nature of many of her characters -- Charter, in particular, is strictly one-dimensional -- leaves little room for exploring the gray areas of human behavior. Both the trial and the novel come to satisfying ends, with twists that will surprise some readers but will have those who pick up on Korelitz's judiciously scattered clues nodding along. In all, The Sabbathday River is a splendid read, if no advertisement for life in the Granite State.

James Polk
It's hard to be sure just what...Korelitz is up to with her second novel....Maybe it's best just to read The Sabbathy River as a courtroom drama, the genre in which it works best....About three-quarters of the way through the book, Naomi seems to gain insight into why, after almost a decade in Goddard, she remains a stranger...
New York Times Book Review
Gail Caldwell
Haunting...It has the riveting components of a good courtroom drama.
The Boston Globe
Gabriella Stern
Engrossing...Disturbing...Ms. Korelitz has delivered a page-turner here — absorbing weekend or vacation reading for those in the mood for a suspenseful morality tale.
Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When Naomi Roth pulls the body of a stabbed infant girl from the Sabbathday River, she precipitates an investigation that devastates the small New Hampshire town she hoped to save. Smart and engrossing, this thriller addresses the complex morality behind its characters' behavior with gravity and deep humanity. Idealistic Vista volunteer and New York Jewish liberal in search of a cause, Naomi turns local crafts into a booming catalogue business by the mid-'80s but never quite fits into the tightly knit New England community whose secrets unravel as townsfolk point fingers--mostly at Heather Pratt, the proud and lonely girl who delicately embroiders traditional samplers and unapologetically bears the illegitimate child of a married man. Naomi sees little of the sisterhood she preaches among Heather's co-workers and neighbors, excepting only recent arrival Judith Friedman, a fellow Jewish New Yorker who befriends Naomi and defends the modern-day Hester in court. It turns out, however, that even Judith has her secrets. Korelitz (A Jury of Her Peers) traces the evolution of '60s idealism to '80s self-absorption, feminist vision to emotional chaos, religious devotion to moral decay. After the trial's dramatic climax, the reader is left with disturbing insights into the roots and ramifications of infanticide. Korelitz securely navigates the scientific shoals surrounding the crime. Her rich, often lyrical language occasionally becomes fussy but in general serves her well in conveying local color and atmosphere and in describing the moments of passion and betrayal in this compelling study of modern women with old-fashioned desires.
Library Journal
From the first page, Korelitz's (A Jury of Her Peers) spellbinding second novel is totally engrossing. Naomi Roth, a New York transplant living in a small New Hampshire town, finds herself drawn to the plight of Heather, a young social outcast who is accused of murdering her baby. Though a local in the area for nine years, Naomi still feels like an outsider herself and is compelled to offer support to Heather when the townspeople rush to judgment over the case and subsequent trial. The story is riveting for its compelling story and rich characters. Korelitz gives the reader everything: characters you love to hate, cultural clashes, mystery, and courtroom drama at its best. -- Caroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR
School Library Journal
YA-To the tourists who take day trips to Goddard, NH, during the fall foliage season, the town appears quaint and wholesome, yet its inhabitants ostracize those who are different, and Naomi and Heather are different. Naomi is a nonnative Jew who runs a needlework collective. Heather loves a married man and is oblivious to the community's scorn when she becomes pregnant. When Naomi finds a dead baby in the Sabbathday River, Goddard immediately decrees Heather as the guilty party and vilifies her. During the trial, her menstrual cycle, her trysts with the married man, and other aspects of her personal life are brought forth as evidence. These sordid details contrast with her lawyer's brilliant courtroom maneuvers. This satisfying story of courtroom drama, mystery, and friendships is filled with metaphors, lyrical phrases, and intriguing characters. This is not an easy read, but a disturbing one that examines the dissimilar lives of two women linked by friendship and, ultimately, two dead babies.-Pam Spencer, Young Adult Literature Specialist, Virginia Beach, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Ann Prichard
The Sabbathday River flows deep and dark, a suspenseful legal thriller with distaff sensibility...Korelitz's novel has a colorful cast of women...
USA Today
Kirkus Reviews
The murder of an unidentified newborn baby prompts a group of women to reexamine their place on the scale ranging from cost-free political commitment on one end to intractable personal lives on the other. Set in the conservative small town of Goddard, New Hampshire, in the late 1980s, the story opens as Naomi Roth discovers a dead infant girl floating in the Sabbathday River near town. Naomi has established Flourish, a profitable cooperative of craftswomen, in the spirit of her 1960s-inspired liberalism. As an avid feminist, socialist, and atheist, then, she is outraged when the investigation into the murder-led by duplicitous state prosecutor Charter-selects Heather Pratt, a young, unconventional single mother, as its main suspect. When Naomi discovers another dead baby girl behind Pratt's house-this one actually Heather's-Pratt is charged with a double murder, and Naomi's astonishment curdles into rage at this patent injustice. Allied with Judith Friedman, an aggressive lawyer and, like Naomi, a transplanted New Yorker, Naomi assembles a defense for Heather that culminates in a suspense-filled trial that destroys Charter's case. Yet Naomi's notion of the political nobility of the defense is corrupted as Korelitz (A Jury of Her Peers, 1996) reveals the hidden motives underwriting the action of most of the players. Search not for a virtuous man here: except for the good women's lovers, the male species is generally freeloading, irresponsible, arrogant, and unreliable. Nonetheless, Korelitz plots so well, and writes her women so persuasively, that the story suffers only slightly from this lack of dimension. An often gripping account onto which Korelitz has grafted some minorthemes concerning patriarchal exploitation, the role of faith and God, and the obstacles facing strong, sexually threatening women. If these don't burden the novel too badly, they do distract from a powerful tale of the tragic enigma of murdered children.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Eye Contact

THE FIRST BABY WAS FOUND EARLY ON A WEEKEND morning in September, 1985, as the whole broad length of the Upper Valley braced for its annual riptide of strangers, and as the first maples on the banks of the Sabbathday River prepared to burst, obligingly, into flame. Naomi Roth found the baby. It rocked in an eddy, bordered by stones, and lay so white and, facedown, so still, that she first registered the object as a child's doll, seamless and albino plastic and tragically--to that child, at least--left behind here. Eyeing it, she could conjure that child's keening over its loss, over the uniqueness of this particular doll--set so decisively apart from its hundreds of thousands of sexless twins, born from the maternity of their Chinese or Thai assembly line. But then again, this was not the place for children, precisely. Children played downstream at Nate's Landing, where the Sabbathday widened slightly and merged with the Goddard River in its headlong careen south and west toward Vermont. There was a picnic area there, and the Rotary had put in swings a few years back, and a perennially overgrown sandbox where the mothers clustered and their kids occupied themselves. The water, kept safely away by a low picket fence, made its rumble downstream.

    But the riverbank where Naomi found the baby was a good mile upstream from that place. Here, its curve through maples and leaning birches was fairly undistinguished, and though the path Naomi sometimes used for jogging did pass here, there was nothing remarkable about this particular stretch. The nearest landmark--and it was a pitifully local landmark at that--was the protrusion of boulders around the bend she had just passed, known familiarly as the Drumlins for the little hills of glassy water they made. Pretty, but lethal, since under that glassy water were rocks sharp as real glass. Who would let a child young enough to cherish that doll climb and wade around here?

    Naomi stopped then. Grasping her knees, she put her head down and felt the blood rush to her forehead. She was not a very devoted runner. The temptation to stop was always with her, like a blackfly worrying the flank of a horse. The rasp of her breath overwhelmed the rustle of leaves. She felt the heat in her face begin to throb. Naomi glared at the doll, holding it responsible.

    Or not this doll, exactly, but the one it was prodding her to fixate on--a specific childhood trauma, happily undisturbed in its thirty-year slumber but now assailing her with disconcerting immediacy. Stop this, she thought, but she had already slipped away from herself and the doll was upon her, and how much she had desired it, and how much, for how brief a time, she had adored it. She saw, freshly, the two blond little girls in smocked dresses on the television commercial; she could hear the happy jingle extolling the doll's mind-bending ability to wet. And her name: Sallie Smiles! (The exclamation mark thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer.) Naomi Roth's parents--they of the Little Red School House and Pete Seeger persuasion--had been horrified, naturally enough, but she must have had her fill of ant farms and nonsexist creative discovery objects. The small blond pixies on the television were the company she kept in her fantasy of the parallel childhood she was not leading. She coveted the doll.

    When it disappeared, less than a week after her birthday, she had waited before panicking. Then she approached her parents, whose unmistakable relief over her carelessness--the carelessness they assumed, despite her denials--was clear. Naomi's older brother declined to shed light on the situation, but months afterward it was from his window that she saw her doll again, grimy in city filth on the roof of the apartment building next door. It lay on its stomach against the asphalt, its bright face obscured, its fleshy pink hue bleached to stark white, and the legs between which it had wet so endearingly splayed to the extent of its somewhat limited hip sockets. At that moment, long before mortality and years before sex would enter her ken, she experienced a primitive understanding of the terrifying and the obscene. This tiny, blanched, and helpless body: a distilled drop of pure horror, fallen from the sky to splatter within view of her childhood home as a warning of what adulthood held in store.

    Naomi Roth shook her head. The thing in the river was some child's missing toy, after all, not a Proustian moment dropped from the clouds. It had probably been lost hold of upstream and then drifted down here, she thought, taking a tentative first step onto one of the boulders: an accident and a force of nature working in hardly malevolent partnership, and not an invitation to moan about unresolved childhood trauma. At some point, a banana just had to be a banana again, and a doll just a doll, otherwise what's the point?

    Farther out, the rocks were slippery with moss. She picked her way on all fours, inching ahead as in a game of Twister, with the silvery and frigid water hissing and sputtering at her heels. Drawing nearer to the white gleam of the doll, caught in its eddy between dark stones, she touched the green sludge of the rock near its smooth white leg and felt a preemptive chill. Cold, Naomi thought. She felt her lips move and realized she'd spoken aloud. But why? "Cold," she said again, this time making a joke of it. But it was, wasn't it? Suddenly cold? She should look up, really, see if clouds had gathered, if it looked like rain, here, in the middle of her morning run, with only her shorts and a thin T-shirt on and a good two miles to go before the path gave out onto the road where she had left her car. But looking up would mean taking her eyes off the doll, and Naomi could not seem to take her eyes off the doll.

    The leg of the doll. A strand of vegetation wedged into the crease behind its knee and fluttering in the glassy water. That joint was stiff, perhaps, but not unyielding, ultimately, since she could see that it gave just slightly in the current, and at its side the brief fingers seemed to feather the water. Realistic, Naomi thought, by now aware of the hysteria edging nearer, the strain of pushing it back. And in the barely perceptible sway of the doll's lower back, where its spindly midsection suddenly widened into a cherubic bottom, a vortex of three dark hairs fluttered below the surface. The doll's shoulder blades uneven, one ridge more sharp than the other, as if the mold had been made deliberately lopsided, the doll's wisps of unglamorous dark hair riding the surface of the water, the doll's eyes ...

    Open, Naomi knew, though she could not see its face, wedged against its crown of river stones. Open eyes, baffled at whatever great force would summon it here only to show it this frigid and unchanging vision. Only this! She touched its shoulder and felt its newness, even in death. She was gripped now. Something had her about the lungs; some cold thing had infested her, making her grope for the tiny, splayed, and forsaken body in the river. Naomi reached for one alabaster limb and, touching it, felt the burn of a frozen thing. She turned it over then, setting her jaw against its flash of white. The word "bloodless" was forming in her throat. The flesh was smoothly pristine but for a single puckered interruption where something had bored, leaving the same kind of queer, unembellished wound you saw in medieval paintings of Christ -- one dainty drop of precious blood spilled from a Roman gash. A girl. Naomi's cheek scratched a granite boulder as she lost her balance. Her own hand finding her belly, her belly heaving onto the surface. Her eyes closing now, then opening, but underwater, too, as if she had only wanted to see what the baby had seen in its long ebb here, with its granite-gray eyes that hadn't had a chance to turn, and she wondered, vaguely, what color they might have become, had they always looked out with such hope as they did now, fixing the awful affront of this radiant sky with a stare Naomi could not bring herself to meet.

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The Sabbathday River 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Adored this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have read all year. After you read the first 100 pages you will not be able to put this book down!
Guest More than 1 year ago
My sister and I really enjoyed this book. I found my self not able to put it down. Great storyline !!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Since the days when the first Greek grammars were written by Syrians and Egyptians, the West has believed that outsiders understand insiders best. Thus de Tocqueville grasped Americans better than Americans made sense of themselves.*** Now come two wise, activist secularizing Jewish women from New York to backward New Hampshire. They had not known each other before but work together to defend accused murderess, young Heather Pratt. Naomi Roth had befriended the introspective Heather and given her a job as a quilter in her crafts shop. Naomi had also discovered the corpses of two newly born infants whom Heather is accused of murdering.*** The other New Yorker, Judith Friedman (keep an eye on her religiously troubled husband), is prevailed upon by Naomi to display uncommon lawyerly skills representing Heather in her trial for murder. For meanwhile Heather, in jail, has given temporary custody of a young daughter to Naomi, who longs for a child of her own.*** Seldom has a tale demanded more and unlikelier poetic acts of faith. Two new borns are discarded into neighboring waters within days of each other. Heather Pratt is accused of having birthed both. A stupid or sadistic (or both) but hitherto invariably successful district attorney implausibly brings capital murder charges, largely on the theory that the dead babies were twins with different fathers but the same mother. It is not surprising that this straw man is defeated in open court and Heather goes free. But wait till you find out who the second mother is!*** Throughout, people of small town New Hampshire are portrayed as singularly unattractive, distrustful and unwelcoming of strangers. But the two American Jewish outsiders, per Tocqueville et al., grasp their sullen hosts better than they understand themselves and use their insights triumphantly to steer the novel to its inevitable, fully explained conclusion. -OOO-