Author: Athol Dickson
The following review of the ARC copy of the book was contributed by:NORM GOLDMAN: Editor of Bookpleasures. CLICK TO VIEW Norm Goldman's Reviews
The year is 1927 during the great Mississippi flood when Athol Dickson's latest novel, River Rising, unfolds. Rev. Hale Poser arrives early one morning, poling a boat you stand in called a pirogue into the stilt village of Pilotville, Louisiana. A recent discovery of a manila envelope in the attic of an old mansion filled with sleeping children was the spark that ignited this journey to Pilotville in search of his parents or at least their tombstone. Poser needed to purge himself of the trauma of not knowing his true identity.
Poser finds work as a janitor in the Pilotville Negro Infirmary earning forty-five cents a day. The infirmary had been built in 1894 as a gift to the community by a prominent wealthy white man, Vincent (Papa) DeGroot, who happens to also be the villagers’ principal employer. Poser is also informed that things in this southern isolated outpost are different, as it is “an island of equality in a sea of bigotry, a place where a Negro could look a white man in the eye. Papa insisted upon it, and as the single richest man in the parish, Papa got what Papa wanted.” However, as we eventually learn, the ideal world of Pilotville that is supposedly free of racism, where whites get along with blacks, is in fact where nothing is quite what it seems.
Within his first days of his arrival, Poser creates quite a stir when he comes to the rescue of Rosa Lamont, who is in need of a cesarean section and is about to give birth. Poser takes over from a drunken white doctor, as he performs a so-called miracle in that both mother and baby survive without surgery being required. The following day, however, baby Hannah disappears from her crib and a search party is organized that eventually is called off due to its lack of success.
This does not deter the determined Poser and James Lamont, the father of the baby Hannah, to continue the search, each plotting their own paths. What is quite distressing to Poser is that he learns that this is not the first baby that has been kidnapped over the years- never to be found. Eventually, the search leads Poser to the discovery of a hideous slave camp hidden away where “dozens of Negroes, bent double, dragging tow bags, picking fast, voices rising up together in gentle harmony.” Poser enters the camp and becomes one of its slaves, something that was unheard of before, as no one ever entered this hell-like place on his own free will.
The novel is well written, the characters vivid and sympathetic, and Dickson’s storytelling is enormously mesmerizing, as he builds his tale out of endless digressions. However, while I don’t doubt Dickson’s religious commitment to Christianity, I found that from time to time he allows the story to meander and go off the rails with his over preaching. Nonetheless, the novel does grow on you as you ponder the many questions the author raises throughout the narrative pertaining to slavery, double standards, religious hypocrisy, prayer, does God listen, why are men evil and many other of the “big” questions we often ask ourselves.