I have a bad habit of gobbling books, racing through them to see what happens next. (This is similar to the way I often eat.) But sometimes a really fine book will slow me down. It’s partly a matter of vivid, melodious writing, with every word the right one and no words to spare. It makes me want to savor the sentences. And if the characters move me, the stories are page-turners, and it’s filled with delicious details, why wouldn’t I want to linger at the table?
The River’s Memory, a novel by Sandra Gail Lambert, not only rewarded my careful reading, but made me want to read it twice. It tells the separate stories of six women and one little girl who lived along the Silver River in north central Florida. Lambert writes as though she were possessed by her seven characters. She lives in their worlds, sees their visions, and dreams their dreams. Each character becomes real, with her own distinctive voice. Because Lambert inhabits their lives, we do too, and care desperately about the fate of these women, all but one long gone.
All the characters are intimately connected to the river, and to wild nature. They are solitary, sometimes lonely - though some have lovers, their lives are centered in nature, work, their creative vision, or simply survival. Their stories give us the history of Florida from prehistoric times into the 21st century: the extinction of species, indigenous trade before the European invasion, lynchings, the first world war and the flu epidemic, and the tacky tourism overlay which, for so many people, represents Florida. Artifacts from one story - a pot shard, a dugout canoe, a shred of scarf, a silver hip flask, appear in the stories that follow.
In the 16th century a Native American potter finds her clay and her inspiration in the river. Surrounded by enemies and treachery, brought down by illness, she holds onto her creative vision - all that matters is the clay, the next pot. From one enemy she hears rumors of invaders from across the sea:“...Men furred like animals, too many to count, who rode on top of beasts....they say that the hair dangled off their faces like moss and some of their chests shone like the sun. Weapons bounced off of them.”
Just before the Civil War, a little girl on the Florida frontier has the woods and the river for her playground. “I poke the caterpillar. The yellow horns pop out of its back. From this close, I can see the slime. I touch them and wipe my finger on the hem of my over slip, and it stains, but maybe Mother won’t see. The horns flop and suck back under the skin. I poke it again, and the horns do it again. They look the same yellow as what ran out of the sore on Sister’s leg....Now I see all the other caterpillars... I pull at one and its feet suck onto the leaves. I pull harder, and it keeps eating even with the back half of its body in the air....”
“Mist is lace on top of the water. A little more day and it’ll disappear. Sister and I wave our hands into the white, and it spins into the sky like smoke. I lean beside Sister and we reach our hands until they touch the water and make circles in our reflections.”
It is 1918, the height of the War and the flu epidemic. We are at the Florida Industrial School for Girls, where inmates labor in the kitchen. With contagion spreading through the school, an orphan girl runs away, looking for her grandparents’ old home. She finds it abandoned and in ruins. She grieves and remembers, and her pain - aching head and bones, charred throat, itchy skin - seems to be one with her grief.
During the Depression, a woman born with no legs, who walks on her hands, finds her freedom rowing and swimming in the river at night, communing with the manatees. She eases her constant pain with rum. Her parents have done their best to give her privacy and independence, while keeping her at home. They have built her a downstairs suite with a separate entrance. “But I don’t need a room of my own. I need the rest of the world.”
Boys who spot her in the river surround and torment her like mosquitoes. “The line of them have unbuttoned their pants. They waggle small penises and laugh. I’m on my second generation of little boys. It seems that any of their parents who remember I’m a woman haven’t told them. No one’s yelling Mockie or Jew boy, so this particular batch doesn’t know about that either.”
The end of the 20th century, and an old woman in a hospital. As she lies dying, her pain eased and tongue loosened by ample doses of painkilling drugs, she tells her memories to a prim lady from the local Historical Society.
Her lover - a 65-year-old woman with “sparkles of red” in her silver hair,“my gal”- comes to take her home, but she demands to be taken to the river instead. There she lies among pillows in an abandoned canoe, while her lover poles them down the river.
“Arrowhead stalks stretch up my spine and bloom their white flowers into my breasts.... A turtle swims away from us, the flip of her turtle feet a tickle along my ribs, and an alligator splashes off the sunny bank...I see the alligator’s old relative, the crocodile, blinking its transparent eyelids and swimming in the ancient ocean that existed here above us all.”
The sour salesclerk in the Silver Springs souvenir shop has worked there for thirty years. She observes the tourists buying tchotckes with grim amusement. “My ex-mother-in-law collected owls. I guess she still does. I guess women have to collect something so their families will know what to buy them for gifts.”
She’s been doing the job for thirty years, and now has to deal with her first “younger-than-I-am boss.” When she is fired, she runs from the security guards and climbs the fence to the river, where she is caught in a fierce winter storm.
10,000 years ago, when giant sloths still loomed twenty feet above the native hunters, and saber tooth tigers were not quite extinct, a woman travels the coast to trade with the river people on behalf of her tribe. “These people who live so far from the sea, they pack together, and they stink - of the sticky pine in their fires, the sour bark drink they make, the rock dust that floats from their chert quarry...” Lambert fully imagines the life of these prehistoric people - their tense negotiations in trade, their intimate knowledge of the natural world, the children who remain unnamed until they have survived the hazards of early childhood.
This is a book of the body, of the senses. Sights, sounds, smells, touch lead through memory to revelation or understanding. It is a book of close description, but not the sort that makes your eyes glaze over, waiting for something to for godsake happen. Each story is filled with suspense, often with violence, threat, and tragedy. And the details are so telling - funny, poignant, or heartbreaking.
The River's Memory is a feast. Don't gobble it down; savor it.
The River's Memory is available from your local independent bookstore, or from any of the usual venues, in paperback and ebook.
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Next post: August 29