"The River Wife" spans several generations of a southern Missouri family living alongside the Mississippi River, starting with one of the New Madrid earthquakes in 1812, and taking us beyond the Great Depression in the 1930s. I enjoyed this book very much; it kept me turning the pages, even when the events in the story were troubling (which, of course, is to be expected in a book about pioneer life; it was not unusual for people to die sudden and even violent deaths).
In a way, the title is somewhat deceptive, as there is not one, but several "river wives." Really, the story centers around "One-Armed" Jacques Ducharme, a French fur trapper who turns inn-keeper and river pirate. Over the years, the story is told by the various women in his life, so it's their stories we can actively experience, although all the way through, Jacques is really the central figure, the one who holds everyone else together over the years. I found it interesting that, in spite of his importance to the story (or perhaps because of it), the author chose not to divulge certain details about this man. We never hear the full story, for example, of how he loses his arm. In a lesser book, this would have seemed like a failing, a "loose end" which was stupidly neglected, but in this case, somehow it worked (and, it was obviously deliberate, not an oversight). We're not supposed to understand him fully, just as none of the women in his life ever could, with the exception perhaps of Omah (but she was good at keeping her own counsel).
The story is well-written, with beautiful, descriptive prose, but not so flowery as to be distracting. Great characters, all of whom are flawed in various ways, their sins ranging from vanity and pride to outright murderous greed. And yet, there were none of the main characters whom I found truly unlikable, or so despicable that I couldn't feel compassion for their trials, or hope for them to succeed in their endeavors (even criminal ones). I also enjoyed the appearance of J.J. Audubon, who's something of a personal hero for me.
Probably my favorite thing about this book is the way it kept it's pace and flavor throughout, something which historical "sagas" like this often fail to do, in my experience. I tend to really enjoy the early parts of the story, but as it comes closer to the present day, the narrative speeds up, the characters are less well-developed, the stories fall apart, and I lose interest. This one stayed fresh and interesting all the way through, and the characters in the later part of the story were every bit as well-drawn as the ones we met early in the book.
Something I found seductive about this book is the way the author leaves some things open to speculation, even some things which seem very important in the story (the story behind Jacques losing his arm, for example). I kept waiting for explanations for certain things, until I realized that they just were not coming, and I had to decide for myself. I was also intrigued by the way the author wove in the ghosts and supernatural elements, without making them the focus of the book, which is almost always the case when supernatural things appear in literature. Certainly, the property was haunted by Annie, and others. Jacques must surely have done some sort of sorcery in order to keep his youth for so long. Here again, though, these things are never spelled out; only mentioned in passing, which made me even more curious while at the same time leaving the reader to decide for her/himself just what might have been happening.
With all the things I loved about the book, I will also say that at times I found it challenging. Yes, I expected people to die, but a few of those deaths were very difficult to read. Also, on the whole, I found the story depressing, rather than uplifting, leaving me with the feeling that this was an excellent book I enjoyed while I was reading it, but not something I'll want to contemplate at length, or read again someday. (I also feel this way about many of the books Oprah chose for her bookclub in the early 2000s). On the whole, I took it as a study of how greed destroys people and families. And yet, this one family does manage to hang on, if only by a thread; as far as we know, by the end of the book there is but a single descendent of Jacques remaining, and Jacques' treasure hoard remains undiscovered. What we learn in the epilogue came as no surprise (although I don't think I'd actually guessed about Vishti's parentage), but it was still a flat note on which to end the story. We are given a ray of hope, though (or the possibility of hope, anyway); will Swan be able to overcome the family curse? (The author never comes out and says the family is cursed, but surely that's what we're meant to conclude from all that happens over the years). In any case, if they do find the treasure, I have little hope that it will really "save" them. Jacques had his wealth throughout most of the story, yet the happiness his family experienced was always fleeting, nonetheless.
I would definitely recommend this book, as it was well-written and interesting, and I would read other books by this author. Just don't choose it when you're looking for something light and cheerful.