The River Wife, the latest novel by Jonis Agee, starts with a deceptively placid prologue told in the first person by a 17-year-old named Hedie Rails who arrives at a place known as Jacques’ Landing, Mo., in 1930. Sent away by her family in the Ozarks who disapprove of her groom-to-be, Clement Ducharme, Hedie alights from his coupe and takes in the unfamiliar bottomland along the Mississippi River where the Ducharme family has lived for years.
“The trees were so vertical — that’s the first thing I noticed, even before the river. And the land that rolled carpet flat away from the eye.”
It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and in the huge old Ducharme place above the river, the phone is always ringing late at night, summoning Clement to some secret business. Determined one night to stay up until her husband returns, Hedie discovers some unusual leather-bound volumes in the first-floor library. “Inside the water-spotted cover was written: Annie Lark Ducharme, 1811-1821, Volume I. …”
“And so it was that the women of the old house on Jacques’ Landing began to tell me their stories, and went on telling me over the years I’ve lived here. Sometimes I read the words they had written, sometimes they visited me in dreams; on many occasions they spoke outright, out loud to me. …”
As Hedie turns the journal pages, the reader is plunged headlong into a multigenerational saga that begins with the upheaval of the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 and the days of river pirates and ends with Hedie’s own entries in 1950.
The journal may be an over-used literary ploy, but Agee, the author of Sweet Eyes and Strange Angels, employs it to good effect here. She has created a sweeping, fast-moving narrative about the dark and mercurial French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, and a stream of women from Annie Lark on, who were connected to him, to the estate he built at Jacques’ Landing, and, unwittingly, to each other.
There are times when a reader tires of Hedie and becomes impatient for the story to return to the more engrossing women who preceded her. But most of the time, The River Wife grabs hold and pulls the reader along with the irresistible force of the Mississippi in flood.
The novel throbs with incident: earthquakes, floods, fires, and the lingering hatred and violence in the aftermath of the Civil War. Children die; women perish; men are slain. Fortunes are made, stolen, squandered. Love is depicted sometimes as a blessing, but more often as an enduring curse. A mysterious yellow diamond passes from hand to hand through the generations, and the huge house at Jacques’ Landing casts its shadow over all.
“The house, at the top of the hill, was on four-foot-high timbers to keep the river away, and it was so large it looked like they were building something to hold all their sorrow.”
Agee is a lush, lyrical writer, and the narrative is enriched by her historical research and her attentiveness to nature. Annie’s fascination with insects, birds and animals prompts her to try sketching, but that pastime leads Agee to one of her rare missteps — a far-fetched, ill-fated romance between Annie and John James Audubon, who arrives at Jacques’ Landing by keelboat.
Most of the novel’s many characters are fully drawn and fascinating, particularly strange Jacques and Omah, the powerful, shrewd daughter of freed slaves who forges a partnership with him. But it is Annie Lark Ducharme who dominates this saga. Her spirit hovers over the pages and imparts a transcendent grace.
“Entering another person’s family is probably the bravest thing a person can do, I figure,” Hedie observes at one point. “There’s just no way of knowing the infinite devices we have to stitch ourselves together across time. How we come to hold hands with every dead person, every ghost, every wrong, every beloved, and every lost soul. They become us after a while. …”
In The River Wife, Agee makes believers of us all.