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River gothic

In her new novel 'The River Wife,' Jonis Agee serves up a steaming dish of Southern melodrama and gorgeous prose

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Teenage brides in literature aren't exactly known for their ability to pick men, but Hedie Rails Ducharme is soon to find out that happy endings in Jacques Landings, Mo., are just about as scarce as ivory-billed woodpeckers. Despite her husband's penchant for buying her fancy shoes, Hedie is no Cinderella and actually ends up having more than a few things in common with Bluebeard's wife.

Clement is always being called away at 2 a.m. on errands Hedie's not allowed to inquire about. ("What business needed to be done in the middle of the night?") And, the pregnant 17-year-old soon discovers, the family's riverfront mansion is stuffed with the tragic histories of 100 years' worth of "river wives." There's even a secret room – this one stuffed with buried treasure rather than murdered women, although there's room for at least one corpse.

Pirates, the legacy of slavery, natural history, romance, and Southern Gothic tradition combine in Jonis Agee's atmospheric new novel, The River Wife, set in a small town so isolated "it's as if the whole state of Missouri has been trying to shake it off for years, like a vestigial tail."

Annie Lark is the first river wife to get mixed up with the Ducharmes, although in fairness, she was half-paralyzed and in danger of drowning. During the 1811 earthquake that flattened Missouri, a house fell on the girl, pinning her to her bed. In a touching display of parental loyalty, her mother and father run away and leave her there without any food or water – except for the river that had flooded its banks and is creeping toward the ruined cabin. Jacques Ducharme, a fur trader, rescues Annie and nurses her until her legs heal, and in gratitude, she becomes his common-law wife.


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