THE RIVER WIFE
By Jonis Agee
Random House. 393 pp. $24.95
In the late 19th century, as the United States struggled to recover from the Civil War and the spiritualist movement reached its peak, the idea that a person could be haunted by the past moved beyond metaphor. Writers such as Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett and Henry James introduced the supernatural into their work. No longer was the past conveyed in flashback and dialogue alone; the past became an actual woman in a blue or white dress, standing by a window, whispering about how she'd been wronged.
So it's in keeping with the spirit of that time that in Jonis Agee's The River Wife, set in 19th-century Missouri, a wronged woman haunts the story. This engaging novel traces the loves and losses of three generations of women, but Annie Lark is the book's spirit protagonist. In a riveting opening scene, an earthquake pins young Annie beneath a roof beam in her house, and, with the river rising, her family leaves her for dead. When French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme finally rescues her and nurses her back to health, they fall in love and marry. Jacques builds her a glorious house on the banks of the Mississippi, but soon he turns to violence and piracy and takes up with another woman. "The years passed, their love fading to gray ruin." When the river floods, Annie is trapped once again; but this time, Jacques fails to save her.
Interwoven with Annie's story is the tale of 17-year-old Hedie Rails, who in 1930 has just married Ducharme's great-grandson, Clement. Pregnant, Hedie is estranged from her family, living with Clement in the house where Jacques and Annie once lived. When a series of mysterious late-night phone calls draws Clement away, she begins to suspect him of adultery and thievery.
Separated by more than a century, Annie's and Hedie's stories bookend the struggles of three other women who lived in this house over the decades: Jacques's second wife, Laura; his daughter, Maddie; and a freed slave named Omah, who becomes his partner in piracy. All of these women battle life on the Mississippi: Fires and earthquakes and dogs and bandits wreak havoc on "Jacques' Landing." Even more so, they struggle against their roles as women. Endlessly weighing the physical and financial protection of men against their own independent urges (toward infidelity, lesbianism), these plucky women all strike perilous bargains with themselves.
Agee's world is not quite matriarchal -- bonds between mother and daughter are generally broken, and every woman's place in the novel is earned by her connection to Jacques -- but only women's stories are told. The novel refuses to look closely at Jacques. He is like the river itself, flowing through the narrative landscape, mysterious and powerful but, in the end, impenetrable.
While the men in the novel exert power visibly and forcefully -- they wield guns and knives, they travel freely -- the women generally do so quietly. They use potions and talismans, and they write. In 1930, Hedie finds Annie's notebook. "And so it was," says Hedie, "that the women of the old house on Jacques' Landing began to tell me their stories. . . . Sometimes I read the words they had written, sometimes they visited me in dreams; on many occasions they spoke outright, out loud to me." Jacques may outlive his wife, but she haunts the house for years, in words and in spirit.
The depiction of the struggle between the sexes is well done, but I wish it were more compact. The novel's broad temporal canvas becomes, at times, its weakness. By the introduction of the fourth Ducharme woman, what began as a subtle narrative echo becomes repetitive. And pivotal emotional moments -- such as falling in love -- are sometimes lost in the sprawl, compressed into short paragraphs that make characters' decisions seem like contrivances. By the end, the revelation of each character's lineage and the knitting together of narrative strands distract from the novel's emotional and thematic weight.
With Annie metaphorically and literally haunting the novel, Agee seems to suggest that she cannot be silenced. Literary ghosts are almost always female, giving voice to those that the living world has rendered powerless. Just as the ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved is an infant and the narrator of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is a murdered girl, Annie, although twice abandoned, is given immortality. ·
Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novel "Easter Island" and a current Guggenheim Fellow.