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River Rising
by Athol Dickson
Bethany House, 2006

review by Jana Riess

It’s 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.

Set 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 miracles, challenges villagers’ perceptions, and generally shakes things up.

Although 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. What’s more, his longing for justice leads him, most unexpectedly, to discover the real and ugly truth that racial relations in Pilotville 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, even gripping, suspense fiction.

One 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 ways. The central event of the book is the 1927 Mississippi River flood, one of the most terrible natural disasters in American history. More than 700,000 people were displaced that spring, as levees burst and water rushed in with a force greater than that of Niagara 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.

Some 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, with the reality of what actually did happen in the 1927 flood.

Like 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 instead of assisting 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 to slavery, so many African Americans abandoned the South and joined the Great Migration to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York.

Dickson’s 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, allowing the story to speak, ever so hauntingly, for itself.

©2006 Jana Riess

River Rising
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