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River Rising    by Athol Dickson order for
River Rising
by Athol Dickson
Order:  USA  Can
Bethany, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Travel back in time to Pilotville, Louisiana, an isolated community that is reachable only by boat. When you arrive, you will notice - as the narrator of River Rising tells you - 'Things are different here.'

On an otherwise insignificant day in Pilotville, a dark-skinned fellow with blue eyes comes early in the morning, poling a pirogue through mist so heavy you cannot see a stone's throw out into the bayou. Dressed in a black felt fedora, a white shirt, and a black wool suit that is shiny from wear, the fellow has a pair of brown leather shoes tied together with white laces draped over his shoulder. When the unusually dressed man arrives at the Pilotville dock, he is challenged by the white harbor master. 'Hey, mon. What you do here?'

'I come looking for work,' is the stranger's answer.

And so begins the remarkable story of Hale Poser and his visit to the out-of-the-way outpost on the Mississippi - 'a stilt village bounded by swamp land on the horizon, an island of brotherly love in a sea of racism.' Hale, as you will discover, is a man with a bad hip and a mysterious past who has come through the swamp to this idyllic-looking town for a purpose: he is looking for his roots.

Soon, however, Hale's presence in the secluded community is beginning to unsettle the separate but not so equal peace and quiet among the people of Pilotville. Folks in town realize that Hale seems to be responsible for some strange occurrences: Persimmons shower down from above onto a metal drum; two churches - long separated by race and tradition - begin inexplicably to sing together in perfect harmony; a resurrected blackbird flies up from Hale's hands; a savage boar is mysteriously drawn in from the wilderness; an unborn baby, held by Hale, suddenly comes to life.

When, however, the miracle baby suddenly vanishes - perhaps kidnapped, perhaps murdered - the townspeople openly wonder: 'Who but this stranger could have done this terrible thing?' The folks in Pilotville begins to turn against Poser, and some people tell him, 'Man, you are nothing but trouble.'

And so, in the wake of apparent miracles, and all because of an infant's disappearance, Hale begins a profoundly mystical and torturously painful odyssey into a physical and emotional wilderness during which he will, in fact, discover his roots, but in doing so he will expose to the light of day a Kafkaesque nightmare of staggering despair and unrepentant evil.

In the final analysis, with oppression, bigotry, and wickedness as the catalysts, Athol Dickson's River Rising is a frequently allegorical (and occasionally didactic) novel of the protagonist's and Pilotville's spiritual transformations. Please note that this is not a novel for readers who are impatient with or uncomfortable with a provocative mixture of magical realism, Biblical allusions, and earth-bound themes of crime and punishment; River Rising is, however, an extraordinarily interesting, haunting novel of Christian grace and redemption that should appeal to readers of Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Doris Betts. Vividly intricate, profoundly mysterious, and filled with fascinating characters, River Rising is very much worth reading.

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