BOOK REVIEW: Go as a River by Shelley Read

Vivienne Wynter

‘The landscapes of our youth create us and we carry them within us, all they gave and stole, in who we become’.

This lyrical first novel by writing teacher, Shelley Read, is about those landscapes of youth and how what we experience when young can set the template for the rest of our lives: or not.

Author Shelley Read

Set in a small town in Gunnison County, Western Colorado, the towering Elk Mountains and the rushing rivers and creeks are characters in themselves, as are the delectable peaches that thrive on family farm where the main character, Victoria (Torie) grows up.

One river and the mountains are lovingly depicted in one of the most beautiful book covers I’ve ever seen, showing a sunset shimmering on the blue gold water where a young woman swims.

A beautiful book with a beautiful cover

Quiet dignity

Torie is a young woman not given to many words but full of quiet dignity and compassion, despite the nasty, bigoted people around her, including in her home.

Growing up on a peach orchard in 1940s and 50s small-town America, her resilience is tested when a car accident and murderous racism take away almost everything she loves.

Torie’s family are conservative and hardworking but she has an independent mind and heart and is open to the outcasts shunned by most other people in town.

She experiences young love with one of those outcasts, exposing her to danger and potential banishment. She decides to get in first and banishes herself to the wilderness, relying on her own resilience to survive.

Universal themes

Go as a River reminded this reader a little of Where the Crawdads Sing with their shared universal themes of survival in the wilderness, vicious bigotry and outcasts who find solace through deep engagement with nature and its creatures.

Go as a River is also about the shared displacement of indigenous people through colonisation and ranchers who will be forcibly removed to make way for a new dam. The two experiences bring deep melancholy to the story. Water politics plays a role here as it does in so many stories.

This book also has themes in common with To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense of a young female character, living in the conservative south, holding her moral compass steady when many around her are seemingly without one.

Go as a River is also about the power of female friendship without which Torie would not survive or thrive.

The fragile peach that sweetens in the dramatic climates of Western Colorado reads like a metaphor for Torie, her kind heart and resilient nature.

The book is beautifully written and Torie is a character most readers will invest in. She’s practical, courageous and passionate and seems to make very intentional decisions about when to endure and when to stand up and call out repugnant behaviour.

All the characters: Torie the not-so-long suffering heroine, her corrupt, dangerous brother Seth, steadfast but repressed Daddy and kind, sexy Wilson Moon come alive vividly on the page.

The story is set in Iola, a real town flooded to make way for Blue Mesa Reservoir, the metaphor of drowning the past surely not lost on the author.

The setting is evocative and the reader can picture the dilapidated white farmhouse, its timber bleaching in the sun, mountains in the background and maybe a rusted old Dodge pick-up truck parked in front.

The American south-west

A gripping plot shows how Torie navigates her way out of the prison of American south-west conservatism while enduring domestic slavery to the men in her family and the oppression of small minds in her town.

There is a grace to how she loosens her bonds in a way that causes no further harm.

There are a few well-worn tropes in this book, including The Noble Savage aspects of Native American character Wilson Moon whose perfection beggars belief. The live-in disabled uncle is a stereotypical depiction of the embittered war veteran.

Another reader described the writing as ‘flowery’ and was a bit incredulous at being expected to believe a teenager survived for months on top of a mountain with only a backpack of food.

Magic realism

If viewed in a context of magical realism and fable, these stretches of imagination are perhaps tolerable in a tale that sweeps across the great American experience while focusing on one vulnerable character.

Torie was the one character I couldn’t quite picture while reading the book so I look forward to potentially seeing her brought to life in an upcoming film.

According to Variety Magazine the film rights to Go as a River have been bought and production is in development.

Go as a River is published by Penguin Random House UK and retails for $22.99.

This review copy is from Berkelouw Books Eumundi


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