Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review: First, There is a River, by Kathy Steffen

After I finished reading 'First, There is a River,' by Kathy Steffen, I started thinking about what makes a book memorable. Out of the thousands of books we read in our lives, what is it that makes us remember plotlines and characters years after we've read a particular book? I think part of it might be that something about the story resonates with the reader. Another component could be that the characters are so well-drawn that they become real people to the reader and as the story unfolds, the reader comes to feel he or she has a vested interest in the outcome. This novel about a wife's escape from her abusive husband is just such a story. 'First, There is a River' should not be dismissed as a story about abuse. This story is more about hope and redemption as heroine Emma Perkins flees from her abusive husband Jared, taking a job as a cook aboard the 'Spirit,' a riverboat co-owned by her uncle Quentin. The journey down the river parallels Emma's path to regaining her sense of self-worth as she struggles to find the courage to escape the cycle of abuse her life has become and find a way to regain her children, who have been sold into labor by Jared. As Emma emerges from her cocoon of fear and begins to thrive aboard 'The Spirit,' her tentative friendship with Gage, an engineer scarred from youth from an explosion aboard a riverboat, becomes a poignant romance. Gage is the quiet, reflective antithesis of Emma's brutal husband Jared, and Emma gradually falls for the kind, perceptive engineer, unaware that Jared remains on shore, following the path of the riverboat, waiting for the opportunity to exact his revenge, not only against Emma, but against all those who have assisted her in reclaiming her life, especially Gage. Set during the days when elaborate excursion boats paraded up and down the Ohio river, the author infuses her story with fascinating descriptions of the riverboats and details about life on the river, using her research to form a framework for her story without detracting from the story by inundating the reader with too much detail. The result is an engrossing, exciting story set against a colorful, unusual backdrop. I will remember Emma and Gage's story for a long time to come.

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