Told through the alternating voices of Kay, Michael, and David's father, Kevin, The River Road is a closely observed and psychologically penetrating narrative of the accusations, murder investigation, and courtroom battle that follow.
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Even now, I hear their voices in my head, calling me, cajoling, interrogating, telling the story again and again, as if you could make sense of it.
"Kay, come here. Look at this."
"Follow me, Kay. This way. Follow me."
I grew up next door to David and Michael on the Connecticut River in a valley divided into small farms. The fields beside the water spread to the hills where the woods begin. Whately, Hatfield, Sunderland, Deerfield -- as you drive along the river road, the towns appear. Beside the flat fields a range of hills rises like the soft, uneven humps of a beaver.
I knew the river from the time I was little. On a map in my room I traced its blue course through the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, into western Massachusetts past the town where I lived. In July the fields that ran beside it were patterned with flowering squash, pumpkin, tobacco, and corn, and the sky filled with the high hum of insects, the corn leaves rich and dark as if you could peel back the skin of the world.
Months later there would be piles of pumpkin and winter squash, the hills streaked with red maple and yellow birch, the river water layered with the colored leaves that folded into the swirls and eddies. Purple pokeberries and dark red sumac in the old pastures, a small grove of apple trees. I remember it all -- the hard sweep of snow in the winter, the barn down the road filled with Holsteins, goldenrod and dried thistles, corn stubble in the fall, and the sound of geese. There were wild roses in the pastures up near the trees and grapevines along the fence by the river. The grass was more than knee high. It scratched my legs as I ran through it, all the way to the water.
For thirteen years while I was growing up, I lived next door to David and Michael. As far back as I can remember, we ran through the fields and pastures by our houses, playing along the banks of the river. David was a sergeant, and Michael and I were captives. Or I was a river queen, and David and Michael were the swordsmen fighting a dragon for the smooth stone that fit the palm of my hand.
Both of them had brown hair and the lanky, long-legged build of their father. Michael's eyes were bright green, the color of the woods, and David's were nearly black, like those stones we picked up from the bottom of the river. During the summer we played in the cornfields, running through the rows of stalks, and when the river was shallow, we waded upstream, the cold water washing around our ankles.
"Kay, watch." An arc of water spread high across the air, until we were soaked and mud-covered, tired enough to lie in the sun and rest.
"When I grow up, I'm traveling everywhere," David told us, staring at the sky. "To other countries like Europe and Asia and Africa."
"Those are continents," Michael commented.
David turned to me. "You next, Kay. Say what you'll do."
I said I wanted to grow plants.
"Like farmers?" Michael asked. "I could do that."
David lay back again. "Say you could have whatever you wanted," he said, speaking to the sky.
Michael quickly answered fishing. No school.
"A plane," David told us. "One that could land anywhere, something that would fly me."
My father had disappeared before I was born. During their last two years of college, he and my mother had lived together in a house with other students; then, the summer after graduating, he decided to drive out to California with one of his friends. My mother got postcards from Colorado and Arizona, where he camped in state parks, and a letter that was postmarked Nevada, all describing the things he had seen and done.
Over the years mutual friends of theirs would tell us something about him -- he married at one point, got divorced, he had a job in the music industry, but my mother had stopped looking for him, and he never contacted us.
A year after I was born, my mother accepted a graduate fellowship in New York City, and a few years later she found a teaching position in the art department at a university in western Massachusetts. When we moved to the valley, we found an extended family in Jen, Kevin, David, and Michael. Kevin taught American history at the state university where my mother taught art, and Jen, who volunteered for an animal-rescue group, took care of me after school and in the summers while my mother worked. Usually it was just Michael and David and me playing together, but sometimes we met up with other kids who lived farther down the road. Jen collected kids the same way she took in hurt animals -- cats and dogs, foxes, birds of all kinds, and friends of David or Michael whose parents were going through a divorce or some other hard time.
From when we were little, I looked up to David with a kind of awe, partly because I had no father. In the beginning it was David's father, Kevin, who I looked to. I can remember him coming home in the evenings, throwing his books and briefcase down. He would put his arms around Jen, and then he would scoop up David and Michael in turn, hugging them hard or tossing them into the air. If I was still there, he lifted me also, tucking me against him for a moment so that I felt the roughness of his coat against my face or smelled the scent of coffee.
When I went home afterward, I'd carry the smell and the touch of him with me. "What happened at David and Michael's this afternoon? What was Jen doing?" my mother would ask when I was helping her to make dinner. And when I answered her, I would describe everything that had happened ...The River Road. Copyright © by Karen Osborn. Reprinted by pepermission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide
The River Road is the story of the aftermath of a young man's tragic jump off the French King Bridge into the Connecticut River. David and Michael Sanderson are brothers who have been inseparable since childhood from each other and their neighbor's daughter, Kay. As David and Kay get older they begin a passionate and obsessive love affair. While the two of them are home from college on a break, they go out with Michael and wander the Connecticut River Valley at night, experimenting with drugs. At the nearby bridge over the dangerous river, David -- full of hubris and hallucinogens -- jumps, believing he can swim to the side of the cold, swollen river. With this one act, he sets in motion an inexorable chain of events that indelibly alters the lives of everyone involved -- the brother who watched from the car, the girlfriend who stood next to him and helped him climb onto the rail, and both sets of parents.
Told through the alternating voices of Kay, Michael, and David's father, Kevin, The River Road is a suspenseful narrative of the accusations, the investigation, and the trial that follows. It is also the tangled story of love and jealousy, of guilt and redemption. In the end, The River Road tells of the ways of survival and the endurance of love.
Questions for Discussion
- The author uses different narrators to piece the story together. How does this technique affect the reading of the story? How would the story be different if Jen was a narrator? What if Ellen was a narrator?
- Kay narrates the prologue, telling her version of what happened that night on the bridge. Does this add to oursympathy for her? Does this become the "true" version of the events that transpired?
- David is idealized by almost everyone in the story in different ways. How do the characters see him? Do we ever get a clear view of him?
- Michael says, "Both of us wanted her from the beginning." Is Kay aware of Michael's desire? Is this sibling rivalry limited to their relationship with Kay? There are many stories of destructive sibling rivalry, beginning with Cain and Abel. Discuss the types of conflict inherent in sibling relationships.
- At certain points in the story, Michael explodes with rage. At one point Michael asks, "How could you want someone that much and hate them all at once?" Is this the reason he lied to his father and then at the trial? Are there other reasons?
- As his sons enter adolescence, Kevin begins to view Kay as a threat. Jen doesn't see it that way. How and why do their reactions differ? Why is Ellen also seen as a threat?
- Kevin says, "My lie supported a greater morality." How does Kevin's idea of what is moral differ from Jen's? Is Kevin's lie understandable?
- How have the events surrounding David's death affected Kevin and Jen's relationship? What causes a family to break apart rather than draw together after a tragedy like this?
- Michael and Kay come together years later and Michael tells her what really happened on the bridge. What is her reaction? How would this knowledge have helped Kay?
- All of the narrators feel terrible guilt for what happened to David. How does each of them deal with it? Do they ever find peace?
About the Author
Award-winning poet Karen Osborn grew up on Grand Island, Connecticut where she lived in a rural area along the banks of the Niagara River. Places filled with the power of nature and the wilderness have always been important to her. She graduated from Hollins College, an all-women's college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and went to graduate school in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Since then she has lived in both the Southeast and in New England and has taught literature and creative writing at several colleges and universities. Both a poet and novelist, she is the author of two previous novels, Patchwork, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Between Earth and Sky. She lives in Amherst Massachusetts, with her husband and two daughters.