Comparing The River to Helen Humphreys’s critically acclaimed bestseller The Frozen Thames, her 2007 collection of vignettes about the eponymous river, it’s obvious that the author is not content to repeat past successes. The new book, a wide-ranging exploration of the Napanee River in Ontario, along which she owns a small property, clearly shows that Humphreys possesses extraordinary tools and wields them with daring and precision. In the introduction, Humphreys states, “I have given my attempt to know the river everything I have in my novelist’s toolbox.”
From a two-acre plot in Algonquin territory, Humphreys has spent more than a decade studying how the river “rises and falls.” In this sensuous journey along the river’s length and down into the depths of its relationship with nature, First Nations people, and, more recently, the “encroachment of the settlers,” Humphreys employs a masterful mix of fiction, non-fiction, natural history, archival maps, images, and lists to bring the river’s dynamic character to life.
The smoothly integrated research and clear, rhythmic prose bring immediacy to stories about froggers, a plume hunter, early environmentalists, immigrants arriving on a coffin ship from Ireland, and kids from a 4-H club catching fireflies for NASA. Fire and snake imagery flicker throughout, adding energy, cohesion, and intimacy to the larger story, which stretches back 170 million years. (“The river is older than birds,” Humphreys writes.)
The first and last sections, titled “Beginnings” and “Endings,” question the nature of story and the way memory and forgetting affect its course. Each of the four middle sections begins with a non-fiction essay brimming with observation, history, and philosophical questions. Common names of native, threatened, introduced, and invasive flora and fauna – just as you’d see in a field guide – serve as titles of the haunting stories that follow. The characteristics of the species are embedded in vivid scenes that firmly ground themand demonstrate their variety.
tory “Cardinal Flower” features an unnamed botanist in 1620 collecting a specimen to take back to France; the troubled William Bligh, master of James Cook’s ship, Resolution, in 1779, worrying over a cutting of the flower; an unnamed apothecary in 1827, who undervalues oral history and has consumed the flower; and the famous English ornithologist and bird artist John Gould in 1851, who hides among the cardinal flowers to capture a much desired hummingbird. The accompanying illustrations and photographs further suggest a strong symbolic relationship to the cardinal directions – points on a compass both literal and moral. The story blossoms into a resonant consideration of the history of ethnobotany and its relationship to exploration.
Taken together, Humphreys’s powerful, compressed writing and the phenomenal photographs by Tama Baldwin evoke a sense of mystery and timelessness. The River takes breathtaking risks and holds treasures galore. This important work feels completely honest and earned.