Title:  "River Rising"
Author:  Athol Dickson
Publisher:  Bethany House Publishers

With the mold and misery from the floods of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita still making the news and mucking up the lives of many Louisiana residents, Athol Dickson's "River Rising" is perfectly timed. Set during that region's 1927 flood, the novel depicts the legendary disaster without being a documentary. Dickson includes the facts, but it's the metaphor of a great cleansing washing over the land where slavery once simmered that gives the novel its cataclysmic force.

The story of Hale Poser, Papa DeGroot, and the town of Pilotville, Louisiana is pure Southern gothic. At times displaying Faulkner's sense of place, at other times O'Connor's view of bizarre people, "River Rising" is an intense, sultry, and melancholy tale that unravels like a Southern drawl. Its midsection is so dark and unrelenting that it evokes Wangerin's "The Book of Sorrows."

Yet Dickson's story is full of surprises all his own. Just when the reader gets bogged down in unrelieved misery, hope enters the story in an unexpected way, and no matter how small the odds, the break in the clouds allows readers to take a breath of fresh air. The last half of the book is an emotional roller-coaster. One plot twist makes your stomach drop with dread while the next turn makes your pulse pound with renewed hope.

This unpredictable emotional manipulation is a dangerous game to play with readers, but Dickson brings his story round in an ultimately satisfying way. That's not to say it's a clean, happy ending, but I won't give away any of Dickson's surprises.

While the measured prose of this tale about a black man with blue eyes is embedded in the time and place of the 1920s Mississippi delta, Dickson weaves together several weighty and universal themes with a remarkably light touch, including truth, the nature of evil, the church, freedom, miracles and many others.

I won't get into how all these themes are played out, because I don't see how to explore them without giving away the mysteries of the story. If readers want to discuss them after they've finished the novel, there's always the comments section below.

Structurally, the story comes full circle with a closing scene that mirrors the opening and reflects on a scene midway through. This effective device drops readers back at the beginning but with everything changed. By taking this approach, Dickson leads readers to mull over and, hopefully, weigh up what has transpired to see how it changes the characters, the town – and possibly the readers themselves.

I recommend Athol Dickson's "River Rising" for readers who enjoy finely crafted fiction that delves into the deep and dark things of life with faith, hope, and love.


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