There is a River brings to a close Charlotte Miller's trilogy of Southern life spanning the 20th century. This book, however, stands on its own, relating the story of Janson Sandors and his rivalry with the town's powerful bigot, Buddy Eason. A supporting cast of interesting characters adds depth as we follow Janson from the local mill, to the battlefields of Europe and later the recession-bleak 1980s.
Following a weak opening, from which I could not glean in what period the story was set, the story proved a rivetting one. The author soon made up for the lack of historical detail in the early chapters, lavishly depicting life in a small Southern town during the late 30s and early 40s. The bonds of family and friendship stood out in stark contrast to the prejudice and hatred of Buddy Eason. The harsh division between the factory workers and their employers, the Eason family, rang true.
Janson and Elise struggled to support their family, but their devotion carried them through. The agony they endured while he is at war recreates the experience of so many from that era, as did Elise's resourcefulness in coping with the loss of Janson's income. Their son Henry and granddaughter Joanna, who falls in love with Buddy's grandson, followed in the same tradition.
The story follows a leisurely pace to its satisfying conclusion, marred at times by over-written narrative and awkward prose. Had the characters not been so genuine, it might have suffered more as a result. For it was Ms. Miller's rich portrayal of Janson, Elise, Henry, Joanna and Buddy that made this book unique.
Anyone yearning for a quiet yet powerful tale of love, revenge and redemption would do well to seek this one out.
© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the February 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review