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From acclaimed novelist Jonis Agee, whom The New York Times Book Review called “a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape,” The River Wife is a sweeping, panoramic story that ranges from the New Madrid earthquake of 1811 through the Civil War to the bootlegging days of the 1930s.
When the earthquake brings Annie Lark’s Missouri house down on top of her, she finds herself pinned under the massive roof beam, facing certain death. Rescued by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, Annie learns to love the strong, brooding man and resolves to live out her days as his “River Wife.”
More than a century later, in 1930, Hedie Rails comes to Jacques’ Landing to marry Clement Ducharme, a direct descendant of the fur trapper and river pirate, and the young couple begin their life together in the very house Jacques built for Annie so long ago. When, night after late night, mysterious phone calls take Clement from their home, a pregnant Hedie finds comfort in Annie’s leather-bound journals. But as she reads of the sinister dealings and horrendous misunderstandings that spelled out tragedy for the rescued bride, Hedie fears that her own life is paralleling Annie’s, and that history is repeating itself with Jacques’ kin.
Among the family’s papers, Hedie encounters three other strong-willed women who helped shape Jacques Ducharme’s life–Omah, the freed slave who took her place beside him as a river raider; his second wife, Laura, who loved money more than the man she married; and Laura and Jacques’ daughter, Maddie, a fiery beauty with a nearly uncontrollable appetite for love. Their stories, together with Annie’s, weave a haunting tale of this mysterious, seductive, and ultimately dangerous man, a man whose hand stretched over generations of women at a bend in the river where fate and desire collide.
The River Wife richly evokes the nineteenth-century South at a time when lives changed with the turn of a card or the flash of a knife. Jonis Agee vividly portrays a lineage of love and heartbreak, passion and deceit, as each river wife comes to discover that blind devotion cannot keep the truth at bay, nor the past from haunting the present.
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Jonis Agee is an award-winning author whose novels include the New York Times Notable Books Sweet Eyes and Strange Angels. A native of Nebraska, Agee spent most of her childhood summers in Missouri near Lake of the Ozarks. She taught for many years at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After a long absence, she returned to Nebraska, where she lives north of Omaha on an acreage along the Missouri River and teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1 HER NARROW IRON BED, WITH ITS LOVELY WHITE SCROLLWORK—A LUXURY somehow accorded a girl of sixteen though her father was against it from the beginning—slid back and forth behind the partition as if they were on the river, the roar so loud it was like a thousand beasts from the apocalypse set loose upon the land, just as her father had predicted. Then the partition hastily erected for her privacy crashed to the floor. The cabin walls shook so, her bed heaving like a boat on rough waters. The stone chimney toppled, narrowly missing her brothers, who had leapt awake at the first rumbling and run outside in their nightshirts. “Mother!” she cried, for hers was the last face the girl wished to see on this earth if this were truly Judgment. “Mother!” knowing she was too old to be held like a babe at breast, but wanting it anyway, “Mother!” and the ancient oaks to the south of the cabin groaned and began to crash with mighty concussion and the horses and cows bellowed. She clung to the tiny boat of her bed, and therein lay her mistake. “Mother!” But her mother was busy with the young ones, rushing them in their bedclothes outside the cabin to join her father and brothers, who were on their knees praying while the ancient cypress shook like an angry god overhead, and the birds swarmed in screaming flocks, and the ground opened up. She could smell it, the cabin floor a fissure that stank of boiling sand and muck. There was a terrific hammering and squealing as nails popped from wood, planks pulled apart, and the roof split in two. “Oh my mighty Lord,” she prayed, “take me to your bosom where I shall not want.” Just then, as if in response, there was a deep rumbling, followed by a loud grating overhead as the roof beam pulled away from the walls with a sudden sigh and crashed down across her legs, numbing them with the sudden unbearable weight and pinning her to her grave. She tried pushing at the beam, but it was too thick and heavy. Still she pushed and clawed, tearing her nails bloody, hammered with her fists, tried to lift her legs and kick out, but they were helpless, unable to move at all against the weight that kept pushing her down, past the point where she could stand it. She screamed until she was hoarse, unable to make herself heard over the chaos. When the shaking subsided, her father appeared in the doorway holding a lantern, her brothers standing just behind, looking so frightened she almost felt sorry for them. “Annie? Annie Lark?” he called into the darkness full of dust and soot from the collapsed chimney. The ground shivered and she could hear her brothers pushing away. “She’s dead!” the older brother cried. “Leave her—” They never could abide each other, and now he would consign her to hell. “I’m in here,” she called. “The roof beam has trapped me.” She was certain that her father would rescue her then. “Here—” Something flew through the air and thudded on the floor beside her. Although she stretched her arm, she could not possibly reach it, and the movement cost her a terrible tearing pain across her thighs. “Father!” she called as another shiver brought another section of roof crashing down halfway to the door. “Pray for strength, dear Annie, read the Scripture in the Bible and pray. He will deliver you!” Her father’s voice began to grow distant as he backed away from the collapsing cabin. She called out again, “Help me! Mother, please!” The cabin groaned in a chorus with the falling trees and screaming birds. Then her father drew close again to the cabin door. “I can’t dislodge the beam, Annie, there’s no time. Your brothers, the horses, nothing will come near to help. Please let us go.” His voice was no longer deep and confident, full of authority. It had taken on the pleading softness of her younger brother, a child full of fear and want. The beam was some two feet thick and twenty feet long, its displacement impossible to calculate amid the frantic animals and crying children and their own fearful hearts. She wondered that they did not shoot her like a cow or horse with a broken leg. The roof groaned, spilling dust that appeared to be filled with the brittle leavings of tiny broken stars in the sudden moonlight. “Give me a betty lamp and candle,” she said. “And blankets, I’m so cold.” She did not mention the pain radiating its terrible burning rays down her legs and up her back. It took her father a moment to collect his courage to enter the cabin, find and light the lamp, and gather several candles and sulphurs. He placed only a single deerskin over her feet, which had begun to turn icy in the weight of the cold. He must take the other blankets to the family, she understood. When he tugged her own quilts up to her chin and kissed her forehead, his body was quaking. “Farewell, dear girl”—his voice grew raspy—“we shall meet on the far shore, clothed in His bright joy.” The roof groaned again. His eyes went wild and he took a step back, almost stumbling over the log across her legs, and having to balance himself on the beam, pressing down, which caused a surge of pain that made her cry out. He whirled away and grabbed up guns, powder, and what provisions he could before running out the door into the darkness. She had so much to say that she clamped her lips closed, sealed them from cursing him forever as he hurried away. That was the last she ever saw of her family. The pain came in waves rising up from her legs, clenching her stomach, spreading through her arms and bursting into her head. She panted and cried out in a rhythm as if giving birth, alone, to this terrible night. There was a small window in the wall to her right, and as she lay there waiting for the Beasts of the Apocalypse to devour her, the waters of the damned to swirl about and swallow her, the mighty breath of God Himself to blow her into pieces that would never see salvation, she saw the distant fires devouring houses, heard the unnatural roar and rush as trees along the riverbank collapsed taking great chunks of earth with them, felt the wet hot air escaping from hell itself as the seams of the earth split and the damned cried forth, their breath the foul hissing steam that invaded the world. At first she prayed in between the spasms of pain, but it was a dry excuse. Then she pushed at the beam, tried to dig her fingers into the shuck mattress, hollow a hole to drop through, but to no avail. She tried turning on her side, no, tried dragging herself upwards, no, tried edging out at an angle, no, tried pushing herself down beneath it, out the foot of the bed, no. She was panting and cold in her sweat-soaked gown, longing for a sip of water, which she had forgotten to ask for. We are always more interested in light than anything else, she discovered that night. If we could only see our predicament, then it would be somehow possible to imagine escaping it. In the darkness nothing is possible except terrible occurrences, so she lit the betty lamp. Then in spite of her thirst, she had to relieve herself. Ashamed, she afforded herself the small pleasure despite the hours it meant afterward, lying in the wet. It was hers, not a younger brother’s or sister’s, and that made a difference. Oh, she was paying for the pride of this bed, she thought, and watched the dawn arrive, first gray coated, then blue and bright through the small window. She fell into a fitful half sleep. So ended the first day. When she awoke, the sun was shining, and she could see for certain the devastation and solitude that was her world. Her legs were merely a heavy aching numbness now. The betty lamp had died, and she wondered that her father could not spare the oil to give comfort to a dying daughter. Looking around the cabin, though, she knew with certainty that they would never return. With the partition down, there was one large room, and she could see the fireplace near the doorway. When the chimney tumbled, some of the large stones had fallen onto the hearth, where her brothers slept in cold weather. In summer, they slept outside on the porch, wrapped in hot blankets against the insects. The large black stew pot had tumbled into the room. A wonder her father had not bothered to pick it up. Her mother would miss the pot, which had served faithfully every day of their lives. Along the wall to her left, the pallet where her younger sisters slept, next to her parents’ bed, was strewn with broken crockery and jars of pears her mother had preserved from the first crop of their new trees. How the children loved those pears, so sweet when ripe that the juice ran between their fingers! Her mother must have hastily snatched the few pieces of clothing they owned, for there was nothing of value that she could see. Her father had indeed taken all the blankets. The crock of oil she so desperately needed was broken and spilled across the dirt floor. She was lucky the shaking occurred in the night when no candles or lamps were burning, and the fire in the hearth had so burned down that it was gray empty ash now. The crude wooden rocking horse she had constructed for the baby was on its side but intact beside her parents’ bed. He’d never know how his sister had loved him. In the middle of the room, the rough oak table her father had made was crushed by the other end of the beam that imprisoned her legs. The benches too were crushed. Only her mother’s rocking chair remained in the corner of the room, miraculously unscathed, its black lacquer finish glowing dully in the dusky light. She had rocked all her babes in that chair, but the carved lion faces with their jaws agape and fierce, enraged eyes had always frightened the girl enough that she never envied the other children given permission to sit in it. Now she imagined the eyes glaring at her, triumphant, and she couldn’t even look in th...
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