by Athol Dickson
Bethany House, 2006
review by Jana
rare for a historical novel to truly invite us into the past,
and rarer still for it to make us question our own
present. Athol Dickson’s lyrical novel River Rising does
both while offering a profound Christian message about faith,
redemption and brotherly love.
in Louisiana in 1927, with prose so rich you can feel the steam
rising from the ground in
the fictional riverside community
of Pilotville, this novel opens in a conventional way, when
a mysterious stranger arrives in town. Hale Poser performs
challenges villagers’ perceptions, and generally shakes
Pilotville is—by the standards of the
age—racially progressive, with blacks and whites living
on a more equal footing than elsewhere in the South, Hale’s
desire for a fully integrated worship life is not realized.
more, his longing for justice leads him, most unexpectedly,
to discover the real and ugly truth that racial relations
are not as cordial as they appear. To explain how this revelation
occurs would be to spoil the novel’s most mesmerizing
plot twist, but suffice it to say that it makes for compelling,
gripping, suspense fiction.
of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the way that
Dickson deftly weaves real-life
events with fiction,
causing readers to imagine those historical events in fresh
central event of the book is the 1927 Mississippi River
flood, one of the most terrible natural disasters in American
More than 700,000 people were displaced that spring, as
levees burst and water rushed in with a force greater than
Falls. In the book, this results in a climax that is at
once predictable (why do so many Christian novels have to culminate
in a raging storm?) and unforgettable.
early readers of Dickson’s story have found its main
plot twist, which exposes the depths of racism in 1927
Louisiana, to be implausible and historically incorrect.
I disagree. It
is instructive to compare the novel’s fictional
world of 20th-century racism, taken to its logical extreme,
of what actually did happen in the 1927 flood.
other natural disasters, it disproportionately affected the
very poor, including
African Americans. In Greenville, Mississippi, thousands
of blacks were left homeless by the inundation, but
them, the government assigned them to under-equipped
refugee camps with little food and water. Blacks
were left stranded
and in danger while rescue boats ferried whites to
safety. To add
insult to injury, in the months following the disaster,
many black men were conscripted at gunpoint into forced
labor to rebuild
the levees and assist in flood relief. It’s no
wonder that after months of displacement and work akin
African Americans abandoned the South and joined the
Great Migration to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago
novel doesn’t address
the aftermath of the flood, but he creates a world
so immediate and real that
he helps us understand how such history might have
unfolded. What’s more, he does so in a story
that is rife with evocative biblical imagery, with
Hale as a Moses figure and the flood a
stunning recapitulation of the plagues of Egypt.
However, Dickson refrains from preaching at the reader,
the story to
speak, ever so hauntingly, for itself.
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