Imagine sitting across from your first love, whom you haven’t seen for 16 years. He’s more handsome than you thought he would be. He’s strong, healthy and charming. There’s just one problem. He’s in prison, serving a life sentence without parole for murdering two people.
This is where Angela Palm found herself some years ago, face to face with the man she once dreamed she’d spend the rest of her life with. In her affecting memoir “Riverine,” winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Palm searches through her past to understand “how it was possible for the lives of two people sprung from the same place to diverge in such different directions.”
Growing up in rural Indiana on an old riverbed, Palm fell for Corey, a troubled but charismatic neighbor whose bedroom window faced hers. They became fast friends, playing truth-or-dare and tag, having serious conversations while sitting on top of Palm’s swing set.
“We’re not much different,” she says to Corey, who landed in prison at 19. “None of us. People are mostly water and thoughts.”
Corey struggled through adolescence. Gradually, his troubles grew from minor infractions such as marijuana possession to the stabbing of two neighbors. After killing them, he lit their car on fire in a cornfield. Palm’s reaction is disbelief. “I had no answers and no guesses.” But she wonders whether it’s a result of his “makeshift upbringing as the fifth of five children, one dead too young, to guide him.” It isn’t until she visits him in prison years later that she gets some answers: Corey was on drugs, including heroin, and was homeless, sometimes even sleeping at his dead sister’s grave. He was trying to recover, and he needed money.
Palm is no stranger to criminals. Her Uncle Pat served time for shooting his former boss in the stomach. After he is released from prison, it’s immediately apparent he’s mentally ill. In a particularly disturbing scene, he drives his niece to a Papa John’s restaurant to pick up a pizza, and he casually tells her that he was planning on killing her entire family but didn’t.
“Violence clips the corners of my past, and language sets me free,” Palm writes early in the book.
As a child, Palm would pretend she was the fictional characters she read about, such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a girl who could outwit her parents. But as she grew older, she had to confront the realities of life. “Writing is seeing. There is an obligation to complete the half-written letters, assemble the tales, stitch together the truths. Of that, I am certain,” she writes.
Writers tend to search for meaning in their origin stories, and Palm is fixated not just on her physical geography but also her internal map.
“The need to look at other landscapes for clues about what already lies within us is real,” Palm writes. “It is a variation on distance, that thing you need to put between yourself and a problem in order to see it clearly.”
The juxtaposition of Palm’s fascination with landscapes and her coming of age as an author works nicely. Both strands of the story cross-pollinate. Now married with two kids, she lives in Vermont with her husband, a pilot.
“My best self has grown here in Vermont,” Palm writes. “Only it is a wild self, one that knows it was never meant to root down into any ground. One that values freedom above all else.”
She remains free, but part of her will always belong to Corey. The two maintain a close relationship, exchanging emails and holding on to a relationship that was planted years ago. Palm’s husband understands but has asked her whether she’d leave him if Corey were released. Her response is that there’s no point in talking about something that can’t happen, yet “it was a relief to know that he was open to any answer I might give.”
Palm emerges from these pages as someone who holds on firmly to the first boy she ever fell in love with, someone who forges a new life for herself while never forgetting where she comes from. There’s a flickering beauty to her stubbornness, like the reflection of late afternoon sunlight in a river. Corey committed an awful crime — but underneath his surface, there’s still the boy she peered at through her window all those years ago. Reading this tale, we can all remember lost loves and ponder the might-have-beens.
Michele Filgate is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Brooklyn.
By Angela Palm
Graywolf. 253 pp. Paperback, $16