River Wife

River Wife

by Jonis Agee

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

River Wife by Jonis Agee

From acclaimed novelist Jonis Agee, whom The New York Times Book Review called “a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape,” The River Wife is a sweeping, panoramic story that ranges from the New Madrid earthquake of 1811 through the Civil War to the bootlegging days of the 1930s.

When the earthquake brings Annie Lark’s Missouri house down on top of her, she finds herself pinned under the massive roof beam, facing certain death. Rescued by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, Annie learns to love the strong, brooding man and resolves to live out her days as his “River Wife.”

More than a century later, in 1930, Hedie Rails comes to Jacques’ Landing to marry Clement Ducharme, a direct descendant of the fur trapper and river pirate, and the young couple begin their life together in the very house Jacques built for Annie so long ago. When, night after late night, mysterious phone calls take Clement from their home, a pregnant Hedie finds comfort in Annie’s leather-bound journals. But as she reads of the sinister dealings and horrendous misunderstandings that spelled out tragedy for the rescued bride, Hedie fears that her own life is paralleling Annie’s, and that history is repeating itself with Jacques’ kin.

Among the family’s papers, Hedie encounters three other strong-willed women who helped shape Jacques Ducharme’s life–Omah, the freed slave who took her place beside him as a river raider; his second wife, Laura, who loved money more than the man she married; and Laura and Jacques’ daughter, Maddie, a fiery beauty with a nearly uncontrollable appetite for love. Their stories, together with Annie’s, weave a haunting tale of this mysterious, seductive, and ultimately dangerous man, a man whose hand stretched over generations of women at a bend in the river where fate and desire collide.

The River Wife
richly evokes the nineteenth-century South at a time when lives changed with the turn of a card or the flash of a knife. Jonis Agee vividly portrays a lineage of love and heartbreak, passion and deceit, as each river wife comes to discover that blind devotion cannot keep the truth at bay, nor the past from haunting the present.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812977196
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/27/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 468,481
Product dimensions: 7.94(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

Jonis Agee is an award-winning author whose novels include the New York Times Notable Books Sweet Eyes and Strange Angels. A native of Nebraska, Agee spent most of her childhood summers in Missouri near Lake of the Ozarks. She taught for many years at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After a long absence, she returned to Nebraska, where she lives north of Omaha on an acreage along the Missouri River and teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE
 
HEDIE RAILS DUCHARME
 
THE TREES WERE SO VERTICAL—THAT’S THE FIRST THING I NOTICED, EVEN before the river. And the land that rolled carpet flat away from the eye. As I stepped from the coupe in front of the courthouse in Jacques’ Landing, Missouri, just above New Madrid, the only shiver I felt was a slight vertigo. I held on to the door of the coupe for a moment, and Clement Ducharme must have thought I was reconsidering, because he put his hand under my free arm and lifted me away. I was taller than him by a good two inches, and it seemed to make him proud. He insisted I wear my high heels whenever we were in public. Over the next few weeks, he would buy me pair after pair of shoes, all high heels, open toed, many with tiny straps and coy little rhinestone buttons. I was too young in love to question then.
 
In the street, tired farmers came and went, worrying about taxes, foreclosures, money they didn’t have. It was 1930, the Great Depression, and everybody was poor but us, and nobody stopped to talk.
 
Cotton fibers floated in the air, rising and settling again, as if on an invisible tide rinsing over the town. They caught in the screens of doors and windows, settled over uncovered dishes of beans and cornbread and fresh tomatoes, and clung to your tongue when you tried to talk, so you constantly found yourself licking every syllable as if it were part of a filthy word as you scraped your tongue against your front teeth and swallowed.
 
We climbed the worn flagstones, each with a small trough from eightysome years of feet, up the cupped gray granite steps, and into the round green marble atrium. Clement pointed up at the green stained-glass rose that domed the roof three stories above us, and made me squint to see the repaired glass on the right side.
 
“Cannon fire from the Yankee bombardment,” he said.
 
In fact, I would discover later that it was Billy Shut, the Confederate raider, whose rifle went off during a brief skirmish not long after the town was taken.
 
The light from the dome was green and slightly milky, and I wondered if I needed to slip on my glasses for a moment. It was the only secret I kept from him in the beginning—my weak eyes that wouldn’t let me decipher words and details up close.
 
But I saw the drifts of dust in the shafts of green light, saw the cotton lint on the shoulder of his gray suit jacket. Harvest was early, the yield poor in the relentless heat, and he’d left a puny, half-full wagon in the farmyard to take me to town. There was still a slice on his chin where he’d cut himself shaving at the last minute. Do I have to explain everything? My mother had made me leave. I was seventeen. My sisters had stood aside. I would not be welcome back in the family for ten more years, but by then it would be too late.
 
My soon-to-be husband stood patient, red faced and freckled from the sun, his orange-red hair slicked down with oil, with a part along the right side that looked like it was made with a razor, the scalp bright red in the groove. Somehow he had managed to get a haircut that did not rise so far above the ears that you could see a rind of moon white where his lobe ended. Even farming, he was a neat man, clean, almost prissy with his scrubbed nails. He cleaned his teeth nightly with salt and a slick of riverwillow bark he would slide between each of the small pegged points. You have child’s teeth, I would tell him a few weeks after the wedding.
 
Although I would later return to the courthouse to retrace my path into the peculiar destiny I had chosen, family history wasn’t what I was thinking about that day as I followed the path of Billy Shut’s horse up the steps and felt the places where the iron shoes scored the marble floor as he began to collapse. The soles of my shoes were the thinnest leather, and in the other part of my mind, I would be registering the gouges with my toes as we stood there in the atrium waiting for Clement’s uncle Keaton to come witness for us.
 
“Is your uncle coming?” I finally asked. He looked at the clock over the entrance to the courtroom, then at his wrist where he had on a gold Hamilton watch with a brown alligator band that stank a little when he sweated too much.
 
“Did you tell him we had to do it before the courthouse closes?” I asked. It wasn’t only that, and he knew it. I couldn’t go back home. I’d spent all my money on the bus ticket down here and a present for him—a cat’s-eye ring for his little finger. It was the only size they had at Johnson’s Jewelry in Resurrection when I left that morning, and I couldn’t come empty handed, with nothing but a cardboard suitcase my mother begrudged me.
 
My feet began to ache after a while, and when I shifted my weight so I could lean against one of the columns, my heel caught in a chip from the horseshoe, and I started to go down. He caught me, though, and held me briefly, his ear against my chest, as if he could hear the double heartbeat through the good linen of my white suit. It was the last white suit I ever owned.
 
“Do you think—” I started to say again, but he put his fingers to my lips. His hands smelled of tobacco and the soft lavender scent he ordered from the barbershop twice a year. As much as anything, it was the scent of him that made my stomach pull hard with want. I was so young and there was a mystery unraveling, a door opening to the other side where the whole business you watch as a child suddenly becomes your own. You’re grown up and now the world throbs with something bright the color of blood.
 
At four o’clock, Clement turned to me and nodded, his jaw clamped shut, lips thinned. It wasn’t a face I wanted to see on my wedding day, but it was all I had, so I took his arm and we walked in a straight line through the atrium to the judge’s chambers. When it came time to slip the ring on my finger, he pulled out a platinum band with a large round yellow diamond embedded in the middle. It was so big I had to squeeze my other fingers around it to keep it from sliding off.
 
When it came time to kiss, he whispered in my ear, “Get that ring fixed so it don’t ever come off, hear?”
 
I was thrilled that he wanted to so thoroughly claim me, and after he paid the judge, we walked proudly arm in arm through the hot milky green light out into the late afternoon.
 
That was my wedding day. His uncle Keaton Shut waited three months to come to visit and by then the damage had been done. We didn’t care though, we were happy. And almost nothing can dent that kind of joy. We were going to have the baby at home, where children of his family had always been born. I wasn’t even afraid. And he was a good husband to me, bringing me flowers, feeding me ice cream, a spoonful at a time in the panting heat after dark when the river swished against the banks and the bullfrogs’ deep bass rode the low notes below the peepers’ high throbbing. Afterward, he would make love to me, sucking my swollen nipples until I felt an urgency, a burning so shrill I wanted him to tear me open, empty me and refill me with himself. I tore at his skin, and my own, trying to put us closer and closer still, as if the blood mingling could do that. We spent our days napping in the cool of the fan blowing over a cake of ice, and our nights loving, as we waited for the baby. I didn’t care if another soul ever came to the door in those days. In fact, I didn’t want them to . . .
 
This is love, I kept saying to myself as he sponged cool water over my shoulders and face while I lay in the tub, this is love, the yellow diamond ring wedged so tightly on my swollen finger that it sat between two ridges of flesh. And this is love as the light in the room darkened with an afternoon storm, and we stood out on the second-story porch, naked in the green rain, watching the tree limbs along the river flatten and spread horizontal in the wind while the phone in the hallway behind us rang and rang and rang.
 
“Clement,” I said, looking out across the flat land shimmering in the heat, “this isn’t a land to love, is it?”
 
He shook his head. “The Bootheel is a different kind of country altogether.”
 
Jacques’ Landing sits west of New Madrid, above the water in the tableflat bottomland spread between the foothills of the Ozarks, a distant shadow to the west, and the Mississippi to the east. St. Louis is only 165 miles north. Hanging between Kentucky and Tennessee to the east and Arkansas to the west, it’s as if the whole state of Missouri has been trying to shake it off for years, like a vestigial tail.

Reading Group Guide

1. The house Jacques Ducharme builds for Annie Lark is present throughout the novel. What is its significance? Why are Annie and later her ghost always seen outside the house, never inside?

2. The New Madrid earthquake profoundly changed not only the physical character of the landscape but also the human characters of the region. How would you describe the effects on the people in the novel?

3. Who is the “river wife”? Are all the women in the novel wives? Why and how are they attracted to these men?

4. What is the meaning of the circumstances of Jacques’ death?

5. Why does Omah join Jacques as a pirate, and why does she stay with the family later? How is Omah like and unlike the other women?

6. Why does old Maddie stay to take care of Jacques and Laura’s baby? Doesn’t she realize that Jacques has been instrumental in the deaths of her two children?

7. Jacques Ducharme is a powerful figure throughout the novel–even in death. What is the source of his power? What did Annie Lark and Little Maddie find to love in him?

8. Does Annie really envision having an affair with Audubon? What are his intentions?

9. Why isn’t Laura satisfied with her marriage and prospect of wealth with Jacques? What is driving her to align herself with Major Stark? Does she get what she deserves?

10. Why does L. O. Swan give up his dream of returning home to stay with Little Maddie? Is it fair that Little Maddie asks this of him?

11. How is each of the characters both similar to Jacques and different from him?

12. The River Wife grapples with the secrets that plague families through generations, growing more hidden and deadly as they undermine the house. Would it have been possible to change this legacy? What would become of Hedie then?

13. Although their lives are filled with loss, what do the women and men of this novel gain through their marriages and relationships? What makes them continue to struggle with each other, with the land, with the ghosts that haunt their lives?

Foreword

1. The house Jacques Ducharme builds for Annie Lark is present throughout the novel. What is its significance? Why are Annie and later her ghost always seen outside the house, never inside?

2. The New Madrid earthquake profoundly changed not only the physical character of the landscape but also the human characters of the region. How would you describe the effects on the people in the novel?

3. Who is the “river wife”? Are all the women in the novel wives? Why and how are they attracted to these men?

4. What is the meaning of the circumstances of Jacques’ death?

5. Why does Omah join Jacques as a pirate, and why does she stay with the family later? How is Omah like and unlike the other women?

6. Why does old Maddie stay to take care of Jacques and Laura’s baby? Doesn’t she realize that Jacques has been instrumental in the deaths of her two children?

7. Jacques Ducharme is a powerful figure throughout the novel–even in death. What is the source of his power? What did Annie Lark and Little Maddie find to love in him?

8. Does Annie really envision having an affair with Audubon? What are his intentions?

9. Why isn’t Laura satisfied with her marriage and prospect of wealth with Jacques? What is driving her to align herself with Major Stark? Does she get what she deserves?

10. Why does L. O. Swan give up his dream of returning home to stay with Little Maddie? Is it fair that Little Maddie asks this of him?

11. How is each of the characters both similar to Jacques and different from him?

12. The River Wife grapples with the secrets that plague familiesthrough generations, growing more hidden and deadly as they undermine the house. Would it have been possible to change this legacy? What would become of Hedie then?

13. Although their lives are filled with loss, what do the women and men of this novel gain through their marriages and relationships? What makes them continue to struggle with each other, with the land, with the ghosts that haunt their lives?

Customer Reviews

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River Wife 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Suze1773 More than 1 year ago
The River Wife is a story of different wives' lives intertwined over several decades. Taking place in the south, beginning in the mid 1800's, the story includes slavery, abuse, piracy, and love lost. It is beautifully written and makes an excellent choice for a book club. Full of intrigue, suspense, and even some paranormal activity - this book quickly became one of my favorite reads of the year.
MarieHammond More than 1 year ago
I found this book in the Bargain Section and many times those books turn out to be very good. I liked the plot of the book. It follows three generations of a family that settled in Nebraska in the mid 1880's. The first generation male basically shaped the lives of his future generations. There is a mystery in the book that kept me really interested. The man had a huge amount of money that was hidden on his property and the third generation was desperately looking for it. I was disappointed by the outcome of this part of the book. The women in the book had very strong and different personalities which made the book interesting. It was a fairly good read, but rather long at times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first half of this book was absolutely mesmerizing! Somehow the second half seemed to me to be written by someone else. She got totally lost in the story.
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LorriR More than 1 year ago
The plot was a good plot but the writing had far too many gaps in it. I got to the end and went what? I still am confused if the main character was reading the diary she had all the answers so the end made no sense what so ever. There were huge gaps in time and characters who seemed to stop existing.
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