Sunday, January 29, 2012

Great Beginnings: Ron Rash's Saints at the River

The other day, a battered, stained and water-wrinkled book arrived in the mail for me.  It was Saints at the River, Ron Rash's 2004 novel.  I'd received it as part of a BookMooch trade.  From all outward appearances, it's not a pretty book because of the rough condition it's in after passing through other readers' hands.  This is one of the hazards of BookMooch and I usually take what I can get.  In this case, I'm glad I got this mooch, grime and all.  After reading the opening pages of Saints at the River, I can see clearly why the book is so bent and wrinkled: those previous readers' hands have gripped this novel hard.

Here's how the book begins in an italicized three-page preface before Chapter 1:
      She follows the river trail downstream, leaving behind her parents and younger brother who still eat their picnic lunch. She is twelve years old and it is her school's Easter break. Her father has taken time off from his job and they have followed the Appalachian Mountains south, stopping first in Gatlinburg, then the Smokies, and finally this river. She finds a place above a falls where the water looks shallow and slow. The river is a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia, and she wants to wade into the middle and place one foot in South Carolina and one in Georgia so she can tell her friends back in Minnesota she has been in two states at the same time.
      She kicks off her sandals and enters, the water so much colder than she imagined, and quickly deeper, up to her kneecaps, surging under the smooth surface. She shivers. Fifty yards downstream a granite cliff rises two hundred feet into the air to cast this section of river into shadow. She glances back to where her parents and brother sit on the blanket. It is warmer there, the sun full upon them. She thinks about going back but is almost halfway now. She takes a step, and the water rises higher on her knees. Four more steps, she tells herself. Just four more and I'll turn back. She takes another step and the bottom she tries to set her foot on is no longer there and she is being shoved downstream and she does not panic because she is a good swimmer and has passed all of her Red Cross courses. The water shallows and her face breaks the surface and she breathes deep. She tries to turn her body so she won't hit her head on a rock and as she thinks this she's afraid for the first time and she's suddenly back underwater and hears the rush of water against her ears. She tries to hold her breath but her knee smashes against a boulder and she gasps in pain and water pours into her mouth. Then for a few moments the water pools and slows. She rises coughing up water, gasping air, her feet dragging the bottom like an anchor trying to snag waterlogged wood or rock jut and as the current quickens again she sees her family running along the shore and she knows they are shouting her name though she cannot hear them and as the current turns her she hears the falls and knows there is nothing that will keep her from it and the current quickens and quickens and another rock smashes against her knee but she hardly feels it as she snatches another breath before the river pulls her under and she feels the river fall and she falls with it as water whitens around her and she falls deep into darkness and as she rises her head scrapes against a rock ceiling and all is black and silent and she tells herself don't breathe but the need grows inside her beginning in the upper stomach then up through the chest and throat and as that need rises her mouth and nose open at the same time and the lungs explode in pain and then the pain is gone along with the dark as bright colors shatter around her like glass shards, and she remembers her sixth-grade science class, the gurgle of the aquarium at the back of the room that morning the teacher held a prism out the window so it might fill with color, and she has a final beautiful thought—that she is now inside that prism and knows something even the teacher does not know, that the prism's colors are voices, voices that swirl around her head like a crown, and at that same moment her arms and legs she did not even know were flailing cease and she becomes part of the river.

I don't know about you, but I'm more than hooked--I'm right there in the river with this little girl.  I think I even forgot to breathe for the space of that last long sentence that runs like liquid current.  I loved Rash's masterful novel Serena and am looking forward to his new novel The Cove, which goes on sale in April.  But, after this humdinger of an opening, I may have to give serious consideration to reading the rest of Saints at the River first.

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