already a classic
With little more than a worn wool suit and felt hat, a melancholy tune on his lips, and a flat-bottomed pirogue under his feet, he emerges from the mists into a tiny idyllic-looking town hidden deep among the cypress and Spanish moss of the bayou … In the swamp beyond the tupelo and cypress lurks a lingering evil, sleeping on in dreadful seclusion. Then the reverend slides ashore and it will sleep no more. It will rain down on Pilotville, it will rise up like a river, and nothing but a miracle can stop this awful flood. (from the back cover of the novel)
River Rising by Athol Dickson is one of those novels (though the phrase is much overused) that defies description. As in all of Dickson’s novels it is a story filled with rich and memorable characters and settings. At the center is Hale Poser, a black man with sky blue eyes who shows up in 1927 Piltoville, Louisiana with nothing but the clothes on his back and wisdom in his heart. The little town, hidden away in the swamps as far south as one can travel and still be on land, is an apparent racial utopia where blacks and whites live in harmony in a time when such a thing was unknown. But nothing is as it seems in Pilotville.
Some have labeled River Rising an allegory or a parable but that is in error. There are underlying allegorical parallels that run throughout the story but this is a story with very real characters acting like very real people. And, upon reflection, the serious reader will indeed see a powerful parable unfold in a most dramatic way near the end of the novel. This is one of those novels that can be read and understood on two distinct levels. It is a rousing suspense novel with the most unlikely of heroes and villains. It is a mystery that makes one wonder till almost the very end what secrets lie in the depths of the swamps beyond Pilotville.
On a deeper level, River Rising is the story of one semi-illiterate man’s attempt to bridge the gap to his own people as he explains how God bridged the gap to all of humanity. That explanation carries perhaps the most powerful few paragraphs of prose I have ever read in a novel. One reviewer called River Rising, the To Kill a Mockingbird of Louisiana. One can only hope a wider readership will discover this powerful story just as they still do Harper Lee’s one and only novel.
Bonus: Some questions for Athol and his answers.
The description of scenery and setting in River Rising creates a specific mood in the book. Did Athol travel to that area in order to paint such vivid pictures? Does he travel to locations for all of his books? How important is travel in describing settings for his novels?” (Dee Yoder)
Athol: To research River Rising I traveled to Plaquemines Parish, the southernmost parish on the Mississippi river. I also traveled through that part of Louisiana by boat, to get a feel for the swamps. While I write some minor scenes without visiting a location, I’ve never written a novel without going to places similar to the main settings. For example, my latest novel, Lost Mission, is partially set in Mexico. In writing it, I went to San Miguel de Allende, which has a lovely central square that provided much of the material for the opening chapter. Also, I rented a Jeep and drove about 100 miles along a one-lane dirt road up into the high Sierra Madres to visit several villages up there. People often say my novels are very easy to visualize. I think this is one part of the reason why. If I can really see a setting in my memory and in photographs I took, I can make the reader see it, too.
"Modern day slavery is on the rise in the world (27 million people are enslaved today). What was the most difficult part in writing about such a painful topic?" (Robin Lee Hatcher)
Athol: It’s not the physical hardships many slaves endured on cotton plantations in the south that makes my heart heavy. Lots of people live hard lives physically and are perfectly happy. It’s the lost opportunities, the lives without a chance to be anything other than what the slave drivers said they had to be, all the human potential, the dreams, destroyed. And I think of Hale Poser’s mother, who had to give up her baby. It was common for families to be split up back then. They sold your child and that was the end of it. You never saw your son or daughter again, never knew what happened to them. That’s very difficult to contemplate.
“Does he feel we should be seeing more power in prayer today than we do? Are we too Laodicean? See, what loaded questions. LOL He stated that it was a true story. Has he known anyone like the miracle man?” (Margo Carmichael)
Athol: The storm and flood are true, historical facts, but other than that detail River Rising is all fiction. That includes “the miracle man,” Hale Poser. I haven’t personally met such a person, or if I have, he didn’t reveal that kind of faith in front of me. I have, however, known people who have met such people. I knew a man and woman once who claimed they saw a woman heal a deformed arm, saw that arm grow and straighten right before their very eyes. I met a man from Africa who described many miracles he saw first hand. These were normal people, reasonable people, the kind of people you would immediately believe in every other situation, so I have no reason to think they lied when they said these things, especially when the Bible says them, too. Also, there have been moments in my life—and this has never lasted long—when I have known I was completely within God’s will, and very far outside my own abilities and I sensed a sort of transference of control, an eerie peaceful flow around me unlike normal life. It is as if I am caught up in a power that makes anything possible. It’s very hard to describe, but I suspect every believer has those moments. I suspect those moments were the norm for people like Moses and Paul. I believe miracles are possible when I’m in those moments but there’s an irony to it, because when I’m there the last thing in the world I care about is testing miracles.
“I’ve always wanted to ask him (and don’t know why I haven’t to this point) if that one quote from the book that is so memorable (and you know which one I’m talking about . . . Jesus was a nigger) was something that came spontaneously as he wrote it or if it was something he had pre-planned to work into the story somewhere. It’s so powerful and so right on.” (Mike Dellosso)
Athol: The actual quote is, “God came down here a nigger.” I thought of it sometime in the middle of the first draft, so it’s not as if I had that line and wrapped a book around it, but I did know I was going to use the imagery long before I got to the scene. It seems to me that quote is one of the truest things I’ve ever written. Another is a quote from The Cure, which I think gets directly to the heart of why it’s so hard to follow Jesus: “The temptation to put faith in discipline was strong.”
Our thanks again to Athol Dickson for graciously taking the time to answer these question posed from readers of Unveiled.
Reviewed by Tim George
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Publication Date: November 2006
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