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Tomorrow River by Lesley Kagen


Nobody knows who Sam's father is except for Blind Beezy and she's not telling. I know it wasn't Carl Bell. (Thank the Lord. I've seen pictures of him. The man looked like he got dropped off a bridge at dawn and nobody bothered picking him up 'til dusk.)

from page 113

This is the second novel I've read by Lesley Kagen, the previous one, Whistling In The Dark, was previously reviewed on this blog. There were others between Whistling and Tomorrow River, but I haven't read them. It seems Kagen has found a niche in the use of the child or child-like narrator for her novels. In some ways this can provide for entertaining and lively writing because sometimes only a child can believably and colorfully make certain observations and tell it like it is. In other ways it's frustrating because many times the reader can make so many more leaps in piecing the story together and ends up knowing so much more than the narrator due to the observations and accounts shared, but because the narrator lacks the life experience and is to a certain extent naive, she doesn't really realize what she knows. There is also the helpless factor; children are often at the mercy of the adults around them, and no matter how badly these adults treat them, children can lack the means and the wherewithal to get help out of the bad situation and this is extremely frustrating, infuriating, and heartbreaking as a reader to witness.

While beautifully written and thoroughly suspenseful, I can't help but feel that Tomorrow River is too much like Whistling In The Dark. This owes in large part to the narrator and the general plot element of children in peril and left largely to their own devices while they try to piece to together and solve a mystery that is too grown up for them.

It's 1969 in Lexington, Virginia, and Shenandoah and Woody are eleven year old twins whose mother disappeared late one night the year before. Since then Woody has ceased speaking, Shenandoah has determined that it's up to her to track down their mama once and for all, and their father has slid down to the bottom of the whiskey bottle to cope with his grief and has forbidden the girls to leave the house. It's up to Shenandoah to shield both girls from the brutal abuse and mistreatment rained down on them by their father in the midst of his drunken rages.

While Shenandoah and, on the surface, the townsfolk believe their mother ran off, there are other clues in Shenandoah's observations of her father's behavior and the remarks of other townsfolk that hint that the girls' mother may never be coming back alive. Throughout the novel, Shenandoah, an intelligent spitfire, in her childlike naiveté relates past family squabbles and events occurring in the months and years leading up to her mother's disappearance. However, Shenandoah doesn't realize the extent to which her idyllic family has become shattered and dysfunctional. She also recalls mysterious bumps and bruises appearing on her "accident prone" mother and her father's need to know the whereabouts at all times of her mother and together these clue the reader into what may have been going on in that house long before Shenandoah's mother went missing.

Slowly a brutal, disturbed picture emerges of a family ruled by its domineering, controlling, verbally and physically abusive patriarchs who take pleasure in raining down cruel and vile pranks on the smaller, helpless members of the family: the women and children. By the end of the book the story takes a turn from the dark and disturbed to the dark, disturbed and unbelievable. The characters are vividly drawn from the terrifying, dangerous men to the precocious narrator with colorful ideas and opinions of her own. While this is a good read, I'm not sure if I'll read any future Kagen releases unless she departs from her rote child narrator. I suppose I'll take it on a case by case basis.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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