One of the best books I've ever read was Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads, a story so vividly written that for a while I believed I knew what it felt to be a young boy living in small town America. For years, I've been looking for something to match that feeling and no-one, even O'Dell herself, has managed it. But now, I have found the equal to that novel and it is Donna Milner's After River.
Natalie Ward is fifteen and lives with her family just over the Canadian side of the border with America in the small town of Atwood. The family, which consists of Natalie's parents and her three brothers, run their own dairy farm. Their house is always open and welcoming to pretty much everyone in Atwood and thanks to that and their supply of milk to the community, the Wards are known and loved by the whole town.
That is, until the arrival of River Jordan, an American draft dodger, who comes to the farm to help out. He is viewed with suspicion, especially by Natalie's father, but he is able to charm the family and the townspeople and become one of the family and have the same level of acceptance around Atwood that they have. But River's presence is one of the few things that could cause a divide in the Ward family and his actions cause them to be shut out by the town and by each other.
The story is mostly told from Natalie's point of view as, one at a time, she reveals the secrets she's been keeping for so long and which have torn her and her family apart. We also get sections from her mother, Nettie, as she drifts in and out of morphine induced memories at the edge of death. It is this impending death, that of the woman who did so much to hold the family together, that brings Natalie back to Atwood and forces her to confront and admit to all the repressed memories she has had for so long; including the one that she ran away from Atwood to avoid and which she had kept from everyone she knows.
Milner's writing sucks you into the story, as there is so much love and so much heartbreak in the Ward family that you can't be surprised that the family fractured. Milner tells the story in so much detail that every action and every emotion feels so real and you can understand each one of them. Even more than this, whilst I was reading, I didn't just understand why Natalie ran away from Atwood, but felt like I would have encouraged her to do the same thing and even helped her on her way.
The other beauty of things is that the twists and the heartaches keep on coming. Just at the point I thought the main twist was out of the way and I felt disappointed because I'd spotted it well in advance, I turned the page to discover there was yet more to come. It occurred to me that this was yet another example of how well written this was; what Milner wanted you to guess was coming, she allowed you to guess, but what was meant to be a secret until the last minute remained that way until she was ready for you to find out. In many ways, the reader was on a par with the characters who knew pretty much everything, but what was kept from them was also kept from us and the shocks that they felt when certain things came to light, I also felt.
I never expected to become as involved in the story as I did, especially as I have no experience of living on a farm, of living in small town Canada or of being a woman of any age. But coming to the end of the story, I felt as if I'd lived it with them and that I did know how all these things felt. Towards the end of the story with certain issues still yet to be resolved, Natalie dared to hope for a certain outcome and I was right there, hoping for it beside her. Indeed, it felt like I was hoping for it even more fervently than she was and it wasn't a life changing matter for me like it was for her; except by that point in proceedings, it was.
For years, I've been telling people that they must read Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads. Now, I'll be telling them to read that and Donna Milner's After River. They are both beautifully written stories that take the reader through all the triumphs and tragedies of life and bring you out the other side as emotionally drained as if you'd lived it yourself. Years after I discovered a perfect moment in literature, I have found another and I know that I will read this book over and over again.
If you like the novels of Tawni O'Dell or Anita Shreve, you'll love After River.
by Iain Wear