A novel about a head-strong young woman and her life and trials on the Missouri River in the mid-19th century. 1955.
While not quite the full-on saga experience I got from Cimarron, and not quite as light as, say, The House on the Cliff, The River Witch falls somewhere comfortably in the middle. It reminded me of Gone with the Wind (but girl + river, not girl + plantation), as well as Show Boat. (Edna Ferber and her string of bestsellers have been on my mind lately.) Like Show Boat, The River Witch is a story about industry, slavery, and life on the river…except it doesn’t have all the music and dancing. Because it’s not, you know…about a show boat.
Moving on. The book itself I found in a thrift store for $1. (There was a sale!) I know these are amazing prices, and the money goes toward a spay/neuter program in the community, but I’ve still gotta comment: It’s funny how a pristine but nondescript, unknown book from 1955 qualifies for the store’s regular book sale shelf. Their older books, on the other hand, occupy a separate shelf and cost $10 each, regardless of condition. Remember After Noon? This was the shelf I found it on. I find $10 a bit high, and I’ve never seen those books move except when I move them. But it’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? Thirty years is sufficient to make a book worth quite a bit more, at least in the eyes of some.
When I picked up The River Witch, I was encouraged by the lack of reviews I found online. (And, strangely, it seems to be Marjorie McIntyre’s only book.) The few reviews I found said pretty much the same thing: “I found this in my grandmother’s garage one summer when I was a teenager. I loved it then and I still do!” This kind of evidence makes me think we should all consult our grandmothers (and their garages) when we are in need of reading recommendations.
The River Witch opens in the 1850s with Cordelia, a young woman whose father owns and manages a boat on the Missouri River. When he comes home this time, he brings a green velvet dress for Cordelia. It’s a beautiful dress in Cordelia’s eyes (obviously—-her father can do no wrong), but her mother, from a more aristocratic background, deems the dress too low-cut, more suitable for a river hussy than her daughter. Yikes! Her mother refuses to let Cordelia wear it. For Cordelia, young and more than a bit willful, this is the final straw. She puts on the green dress, sneaks out of the house, and hides aboard her father’s boat until they’re on their way downriver.
In making her getaway, though, Cordelia meets and sparks with a male passenger, Josiah Callahan. It’s obvious from the get-go that Cordelia’s fancy has been caught. But she’s proud, too, and Josiah is quite a difference class of person than she is (he’s a soldier and member of the Missouri Assembly), so she doesn’t just go throwing herself into his arms.
Instead of a transparent love story, what begins to take shape is a fascinating, intricate world that revolves around the treacherous Missouri river. In The River Witch, it’s the cast that lends depth and color to the story, especially those minor characters who keep popping up and eventually help bring everything together.
And speaking of color, there are quite a few black folks, both freed and enslaved, who make up this cast. Sometimes the language made me cringe—a man being referring to as a “buck,” for instance, as well as many casual uses of the n-words. But I have to say that, since this is a book about Missouri in the 1850s, if the language and sentiment were different I would seriously question its historical authenticity. Still, for the sensitive readers, I will say this: the racism is mostly just spoken. The few times it is expressed through violence, the violence is not gratuitous, but an important plot point.
I think my favorite character, in fact, was Button, a freedman who works on the river boat and looks after Cordelia. When Cordelia was young and fell into the river, Button saved her from drowning. Throughout the story, he is continually coming to her aid, offering both his physical and emotional strength. I really was touched by was how this relationship endured and even evolved, and Cordelia always found ways of reciprocating, helping Button at the times when he certainly needed it.
I mentioned that this is not a simple love story. It’s more complicated (and interesting) than that. Cordelia refuses Josiah in spite of loving him, then for various reasons marries Pierre, a river boat pilot who is deeply in love with her. Her entire life revolves around the river. Everyone she knows either lives on the river, works on it, and/or is destroyed by it. Her relationships—-including her understanding of love—-expand and grow more complex as she ages; likewise, the development of her relationship with the river, and her ultimate trial by it, are totally fascinating to witness.
So in the end, I’d say it’s a book about a woman and a river. Hey, that sounds a lot like the title!
‘Listen early in the mornin’,
Listen late at night,
River Witch is callin’ high, and callin’ low.
Cap’m Riley’s daughter,
Lonesome Missouri woman, Oh…’