First Novel Levels Critical Eye on 1950s

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September 5, 2012

Stony River

By Tricia Dower
Penguin Group, 350 pages paperback, $24
Reviewed by Joy Fisher

In an Author’s Note appended to her first novel, Stony River, set in the 1950s, Tricia Dower writes: “Nothing was as it seemed back then.” It was, she asserts, “an age when secrets crouched behind closed doors.”

The three protagonists in this coming of age novel, Linda, Tereza and Miranda, all struggle to come to terms with the unspoken and, sometimes, unspeakable, secrets which affect their lives.
Close in age—Linda is 11, Tereza 12, and Miranda 15 when the narrative commences in 1955—they are nevertheless contrasting both in appearance and in their life circumstances. Linda is middle class, plump and silently resentful of her over-protective parents. Tereza, beaten by her working-class step-father, is swarthy, functionally illiterate but street-wise. Miranda is a red-haired Irish lass whose deranged but brilliant father, James, known to the neighbours as “Crazy” Haggerty, keeps her locked up in a decaying, book-filled house.

Despite their differences, the lives of these three adolescents intersect repeatedly for the rest of the decade until the novel reaches its conclusion, and the stories of each protagonist a resolution.

Although Dower has lived in Canada since 1981, the novel is set in a small town in New Jersey not unlike the one in which Dower grew up. Stony River, nearly surrounded by a river of the same name, emerges as a character in its own right: a map of the town showing the locations of crucial settings in the narrative assumes pride of place as a kind of frontispiece.

The town and the book are peopled with a supporting cast of characters as colourful as the protagonists. “Dearie” is a pink-haired grandmother so vividly drawn the author has a hard time keeping her from stealing scenes. Buddy, who eventually becomes Tereza’s husband and the father of her child, is ultimately revealed as a homicidal maniac. And James, although dead at the beginning of the book, continues to haunt the narrative as Miranda gradually comes to realize that her son Cian was not the product of a mystical union of the goddess Danu and god Dagda, deities in the Pagan Celtic religion into which her father had indoctrinated her.

These characters are not caricatured as villains nor offered up as sacrificial lambs on the altar of conventional values, however. They are drawn in depth, with love. Even one of the detectives investigating Buddy confesses he sympathizes with him. And Miranda believes that “[s]eeing differently might be the truest gift James left them.”

Seeing differently is also the truest gift Dower has given to her readers. She says her goal was to write a “ripping good yarn,” but that the urge to challenge religious dogma as well as assumptions about right and wrong, sanity and madness, love and abuse crept in. She’s right, but her writing is so imbued with compassion that it never seems strident. By the time you finish this novel, you, too, will see differently, and you will be a better person for it.

I have heard it said that a good book has a soul, and all the characters in it have souls. Stony River is a good book.

Joy Fisher is a survivor of the 1950s and a fourth year student in UVic’s Writing Program.


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