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Esquire
Wednesday, August 25th, 2004


 

Saints at the River

by

Ron Rash's Water World

A review by Anna Godbersen

Ron Rash's novels tend to feature complex situations following a death, and dramatic water. His debut, One Foot in Eden, centered on the aftermath of a man's disappearance from an Appalachian valley town soon to be flooded by a power company. The circumstances of his death unfurl in a cloud of adultery and southern gothic mystery. Saints at the River, Rash's second novel, begins with a simpler death-by-water, but soon evolves into a scandal fraught with moral ambiguity.

Maggie Glenn is a young newspaper photographer assigned to cover the drowning of a twelve-year-old girl in the Tamassee River. Maggie travels to folksy Oconee County, South Carolina, which is both the site of the drowning and Maggie's childhood home. With her is Allen Hemphill, the paper's star writer, who is experiencing a professional dry spell. Several weeks after the girl's death, her body is still trapped under water and her family is fighting to build a temporary dam to retrieve it. Local environmentalists, led by Maggie's ex-lover Luke Miller, protest this idea vehemently, claming that any incursion to the Tamassee's protected status will set a dangerous precedent. Neither side is particularly likable. The girl's father is an arrogant and businesslike outsider who cannot see beyond his own interests, while Luke is similarly cold and single-minded. He leads a group of "river rat" disciples, womanizing with some of them. (He tries to explain away an infidelity with the idiotic line, "Why can't we simply enjoy the here-and-now?") Maggie, the native daughter, is caught between the emotional pull of the girl's family and her understanding of the river's power and importance. Complicating the situation is her burgeoning romance with Hemphill, who has a dark past of his own.

Rash writes no-nonsense prose that can seem more expedient than artful. Still, Saints at the River is a carefully spun tale, both beautiful and mysterious. It reveals a deep understanding of nature as it clashes with that equally potent force, human emotion.


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