Tomorrow River, by Lesley Kagen.
But as much as I'm tempted to kitten out, and believe me, I sorely, sorely am, there are the facts to face. My darling Woody is turned completely inside out and my poor papa has unraveled as much that he's threatening to send her away. That doesn't leave anybody else but me. I need to quit my mewling and find my mother before it's too late. I can do this. I can. I'm Shenandoah Wilson Carmody, beautiful daughter of the stars for heaven's sake. - from Tomorrow River, page 24 -
Tomorrow River takes the reader to the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1969. Narrated in the voice of precocious, twelve year old Shenny Carmody, the novel tells the story of Shenny's mother's disappearance, and the unraveling of her family in its aftermath. Shenny's twin, Woody, has gone mute and obviously knows more about her mother's disappearance than she can tell ... and Judge Walter T. Carmody (the girls' father) has slipped into drunkenness and unpredictable, violent behavior. Lesley Kagen also develops the characters of Sam (a black retired detective), EJ (the girls' best friend), and Lou (the black maid and nanny who steps up to help take care of the children in the wake of their mother's disappearance).
But it is Shenny, whose slow Southern drawl and quick wit drives the story and captivates the reader. Shenny is determined to find her mother alive despite all the evidence which points to her probable death. Her concern and caring for her twin, and her defiance of her mean father, grandfather and Uncle ... make her a character who we want to see beat the odds. Despite her precocious voice, the reader is reminded that Shenny is still just a child with the needs and fears of a child.
I know it seems like I don't miss my mother as much as she does, but I do. It's just that Woody is counting on me to rescue our damsel in distress, so I cannot wear my feelings on my sleeve the way she does. I got to stay strong, armored up, but I want you to know, there is no way to describe how much I pine for our mother. The way she presses her cool full lips down to soak the fever off my forehead. Her cheeks as smooth as the underbelly of leaves and how her honey hair ... aw, shoot. - from Tomorrow River, page 73 -
All I can think about as I watch that scrawny boy disappear into the dwindling day is our mother. And how every night after tucking Woody and me into bed, she'd kiss our eyelids closed and whisper, "Today's worn itself down to a trickle, my sweet peas in a pod. But tomorrow is a river waiting to carry us to our fondest dreams." - from Tomorrow River, page 138 -
If there is a flaw in Kagen's novel it is that the pace of the book (especially in the first half) is a bit plodding. What kept me reading was Shenny, who I loved, and my curiosity to have the mystery solved. Kagen's gift is that she is able to capture the essence of childhood -- the innocence, hope (even when all hope seems to be gone), and determination of children all play out in the pages of the book.
The ending of Tomorrow River was a bit of a surprise for me -- and I won't ruin it by telling you about it -- but, it also felt a little contrived and not wholly believable. Despite that, I found myself reading the last 100 pages with a flutter of anticipation ... a good sign in any novel.
Lesley Kagen has crafted a coming of age story with an indelible character who steps into the reader's heart and won't let go. Tomorrow River is a satisfying novel which will appeal to readers who enjoy women's fiction with a twist.
Three and a half stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".