Peck, Richard. 2005. The River Between Us. New York: Puffin Books. ISBN 9780142403105.
Plot Summary –
The setting begins in the summer of 1916 when a 15-year-old Howard makes a trip with his father and young twin brothers to visit his father’s relatives who live on the other side of the Mississippi River. In 1916, America was anticipating the entry into WWI. Faced with imminent war, all young men begin to think about who they are, and Howard is no exception. During this family visit, Howard’s Grandma Tilly retraces the Pruitt family history during the American Civil War, and the story of two young mysterious women from New Orleans who changed the their lives forever. This historical fiction fully explains life on the Mississippi River during this period of American history. In the end, Howard gets what he desires in the beginning, to know more about himself.
Critical Analysis –
In this thoroughly researched historical fiction, Peck captivates the reader with his use of first person narrative, realistic description, and inviting mystery. The last section entitled, “A Note on the Story” gives complete details on and significance of the historical references in the story that may be unknown to the reader. Immediately in the narrative, Peck draws the reader in by a direct acknowledgement of the reader through the conversational tone of both narrators, Howard and Tilly. He continues throughout the novel reminding the reader that he/she is part of the story. Howard’s first words are “To me” which indicate that he is sharing with the reader his personal insight. Another example is on page 82, when Tilly says, “I let him rant, and use some language I won’t repeat here.” Tilly is sparing the details of inappropriate language in this obvious conversational exchange with the reader. Again, on page 120, Tilly addresses the reader with “And if you ask me…” The reader is continually engaged first hand in this masterful story.
Likewise, Peck draws the reader into the story through powerful descriptions. He enables the reader to experience life in a muddy little Mississippi River town, the horrors of the Civil War, and life on the verge of the next Great War. The reader can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch life in the past. On page seven, the reader learns of impending wartime restrictions on travel followed by a detailed description of a road trip in 1916. On the trip, the father with his boys sleeps in the car, roasts wieners on the side of the road, and tells ghost stories as they travel to a town across the river. The reader even learns about auto mechanics of the day when Howard reports, “Dad broke a fresh egg into the radiator so that it would hard-boil and seal the leaks” (p. 8). The reader goes along for the ride through the rich detailed descriptions.
Next, Tilly, a 15-year-old from Grand Tower, transports the reader back in time to 1861. In this muddy little town, the reader smells the “lavender scent” (p. 14), sees the “hoopskirts” (p. 89), and enjoys the hilarious incident of Calinda helping Delphine into her corset. This scene helps set the stage for the contrast between New Orleans life in the South and life in the small town of Grand Towers in the North. One of the more powerful images is when Tilly describes her first impressions of the big Illinois city of Cairo. She says, “The filth of the place was beyond anything you ever seen…abuzz with bluebottles and mosquitoes…The whole town was a dump. The swollen carcasses of dogs lay about, and even a dead horse half in a cut of water red with its blood” (p. 109). The reader learns every detail of Mississippi River life including what they wore, what they ate, and how they lived.
In addition, Peck uses language of the time in his descriptions to add authenticity to the story. Some of the more colorful words and phrases are “nekkid” (p. 21), “britches” (p. 25), “dadburn it” (p. 42), “brazen little hussy” (p. 78), and “battleaxes” (p. 80). The last two are unflattering remarks shared by Delphine and the women of the town. Also, Peck uses quite a bit of French, which is the language of Delphine and Calinda. He always provides the reader with the translation in text, so no part of the story is lost. By using the native French language, he makes the narrative more authentic without losing the reader who may be unfamiliar with the French language. Additionally, Peck does not water down the language. On page 98, Tilly describes half of the soldiers as “drunk” before going off to war, and Mama telling Tilly that she could “spare” her but not Noah. At this point, the reader feels Tilly’s heartbreak over Mama’s seemingly harsh comment.
Through Tilly’s firsthand accounts, the reader receives a history lesson on the horrors of life during the Civil War. Tilly describes camp life for the young soldiers on page 97 as “getting the trots,” “no weapons or uniforms,” “rations of salt pork and dry beans,” “no blankets,” and “Men and boys lost in a pasture!” Later, Tilly explains that the weapons they were later given did not fire. Then, Tilly gives a full account of her entrance into the soldier’s sick tent. It is crowded and dirty – each step “sinking in slime” (p. 114). It was putrid because the boys are laying on “stinking straw” (p. 114) since “they were too weak to get to the privies, if there were privies” (p. 114). On page 135, Tilly begins the real horror of battle by describing the scene of wounded soldiers returning from war. She tells about “Blood soaked through the stretchers,” “boy’s matted black hair,” “the crowd wept like children,” “powder-burned,” and her brother’s “blunt wad of blood-soaked bandages.” Later the reader finds out that in the battle where Tilly’s brother Noah loses his arm, their long lost father fought on the other side and died. Peck leaves out none of the horrors of war.
Even though he does not need any more invitation to the reader, Peck uses mystery to build suspense in this spell binding narrative. The story starts with the mystery of whom Howard’s father’s family is. Howard knows very little of them except that, his mother is “standoffish” where they are concerned, and he is named after his mother’s side of the family. When first arriving at Grand Towers, Howard says of his little twin brothers, “They felt the weight of its history, and mystery” (p. 14). The mystery continues with Grandma Tilly’s tale of two strange women from New Orleans who do not reveal very much about themselves, and the people of the town gawk and gossip about who they could be. The reader hears tales of card reading, mystical nature cures, and Tilly’s sister Cass who has visions of the past and future disasters.
Perhaps Peck’s most suspense-building technique is his use of foreshadowing. On page 65, Tilly says, “We still had Noah.” This begins the reader’s mind asking questions like, “Is he going to war?” and “Will he die in battle?” In other places, the reader is also led down this path are when Mama goes mad and sends Tilly to get Noah, and when Calinda sees the coffin in the cards. All along, the reader is given hints about Paw, who the Pruitt family has not seen for years. Moreover, the foreshadowing of the eventual union of Tilly and Dr. Hutchings cannot be missed. On page 90, Tilly tells the reader “he was old. He was twenty-five if he was a minute,” and then says, “he led me in a trance up on the stage,” as he dances with her. Finally, on page 141, Tilly realizes Dr. Hutchings is for her even though the reader has concluded this long before. Even the biggest secret had its hints, in that, Delphine has a picture of her father that she hangs over her bed but not one of her mother; the fact that she wears so much clothing and elaborate hats even in the heat of summer; and when Delphine tells Tilly, “We don’t marry…Not as you know it” (p. 107). All of this about Delphine foreshadows the truth of her heritage and Howard’s too. Peck weaves together a well-researched historical fiction that the reader cannot put down until the all the secrets are revealed.
Review Excerpts –
School Library Journal – “In this thoroughly researched novel, Peck masterfully describes the female Civil War experience…”
Kirkus (starred reviews) – “Peck’s spare writing has never been more eloquent than in this powerful mystery…”
Publishers Weekly – “Without compromising his superb comedic timing and vibrant portrayals of country folk, Peck reaches new depth with this Civil War-era novel.”
- Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction - 2004
- A National Book Award Finalist - 2003
- ALA Notable Book
- ALA Best Book for Young Adults
*Social Studies – After reading the book, have students construct a timeline of important historical events from the novel and explain how the author weaves them into the novel. Create a blog for students to post their findings.
*Music of the Civil War – Share with students some recordings of Civil War Music. The website http://www.pdmusic.org/civilwar.html and http://www.pdmusic.org/civilwar2.html have a nice assortment available in MIDI files.
*Share poems from The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry: From Whitman to Walcott – ISBN 9780231100021.
*Read other Richard Peck Historical Fiction and compare/contrast especially his female protagonists:
- On the Wings of Heroes – ISBN 9780142412046. (WWII)
- Amanda/Miranda – ISBN 9780141312170. (Titanic)
- Ghosts I Have Been – ISBN 9780141310961. (traveling in history past and future)
- Ghost Belonged to Me – ISBN 9780140386714. (1913 – Midwest)
- A Long Way from Chicago – ISBN 9780141303529. (Great Depression)