River gothic

In her new novel 'The River Wife,' Jonis Agee serves up a steaming dish of Southern melodrama and gorgeous prose

Teenage brides in literature aren't exactly known for their ability to pick men, but Hedie Rails Ducharme is soon to find out that happy endings in Jacques Landings, Mo., are just about as scarce as ivory-billed woodpeckers. Despite her husband's penchant for buying her fancy shoes, Hedie is no Cinderella and actually ends up having more than a few things in common with Bluebeard's wife.

Clement is always being called away at 2 a.m. on errands Hedie's not allowed to inquire about. ("What business needed to be done in the middle of the night?") And, the pregnant 17-year-old soon discovers, the family's riverfront mansion is stuffed with the tragic histories of 100 years' worth of "river wives." There's even a secret room – this one stuffed with buried treasure rather than murdered women, although there's room for at least one corpse.

Pirates, the legacy of slavery, natural history, romance, and Southern Gothic tradition combine in Jonis Agee's atmospheric new novel, The River Wife, set in a small town so isolated "it's as if the whole state of Missouri has been trying to shake it off for years, like a vestigial tail."

Annie Lark is the first river wife to get mixed up with the Ducharmes, although in fairness, she was half-paralyzed and in danger of drowning. During the 1811 earthquake that flattened Missouri, a house fell on the girl, pinning her to her bed. In a touching display of parental loyalty, her mother and father run away and leave her there without any food or water – except for the river that had flooded its banks and is creeping toward the ruined cabin. Jacques Ducharme, a fur trader, rescues Annie and nurses her until her legs heal, and in gratitude, she becomes his common-law wife.

Their first years together are happy, until Jacques' ambition causes him to take up inn-keeping – along with a few other lucrative hobbies including piracy, slavery, and dog-fighting. (Annie won't live long enough to see it, but Jacques is just getting started. It takes the Civil War to truly bring out his ruthlessness.) "In her short life, Annie had learned that men spent all their time either building or breaking – things, animals, people. Without one to occupy them, they'd turn to the other." This truism leads to a horrible accident that destroys what's left of the couple's tenderness for each other.

Annie is the novel's anchor, and once she has been submerged in tragedy, "The River Wife" starts to drift. It takes a while for a reader to notice, since Agee (author of "Sweet Eyes") is known for her poetic style, and the prose certainly doesn't disappoint.

Take this passage describing Jacques Landing as Hedie first sees it during the Great Depression: "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 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."

Agee has a tendency to pound the foreshadowing chords a little too forcefully ("[Annie] sometimes worried that they were living on the borrowed goodness of the future, and like borrowed salt, it could never be returned without bad luck."), but the real problem is that she floats too close to the surface with the other river wives.

Omah, an orphaned black girl who joins Jacques' band of river pirates, has tremendous presence and the potential to walk off with the plot neatly spitted on her Bowie knife. "The real problem was, she herself had had more adventures and committed more crimes than any character in a mere novel," Omah thinks later in life, after finding that works like "Madame Bovary can't hold her interest."

Unfortunately, readers only get a taste of these – mostly in flashback. Agee cuts away from her too quickly, instead dividing her time between Jacques' mercenary second wife, Laura, who only needed to toss her head and say "Fiddle-dee-dee" to make the resemblance to Scarlett O'Hara complete, and her daughter, Maddie.

Meanwhile, during the Great Depression, Hedie's plot matter-of-factly trots toward tragedy. After the war, murders, maulings, fires, and voodoo of the 19th century, the inevitability of misery winning again starts to feel a little tiring. Also, Clement lacks the presence of his grandfather, despite his gangster status. "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 river-willow 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."

Fans of Southern Gothic will still find "The River Wife" a savory gumbo of melodrama and beautiful writing. Jacques himself is suitably larger-than-life and Agee makes it seem entirely plausible that the old rascal could overshadow everyone else for 70 years. (What she never makes clear is why or when insatiable greed became the defining characteristic of a man who seemed sincerely in love with his crippled wife.) The supernatural elements of the story that pop up periodically come to seem as unnecessary as the cameo by naturalist John James Audobon – a few intriguing pages that ultimately get swept aside.

Greed and lust ultimately drive the tragedies in "The River Wife" far more effectively than any mere ghost could.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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