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Down To The River
by Anne Whitney Pierce
Review

My thanks go out to Kendall, representing Meryl Moss Media, for securing me a review spot for this book.

As ever, additional thanks go out to NetGalley, for their excellent download and review service.

DOWN TO THE RIVER

Cover image of the book 'Down To The River' by author Anne Whitney PierceDown to the River is a family saga set in the late 1960s in Cambridge, Massachusetts against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

Twin brothers, Nash and Remi Potts, have grown up as entitled, Harvard-educated, golden boys, heirs to an old, but dwindling family fortune. With the passage of time, the gold veneer of prosperity begins to chip away, and their lives begin to falter. We meet Remi and Nash in 1968, in their mid-forties and partners in a sporting goods store in Harvard Square.

The twins’ marriages are in trouble. Their youngest children, Chickie and Hen (mistakes, they’re often called….), are coming of age during the turbulent urban wilderness of the late 1960s— school bomb threats, racial tensions, war protests and demonstrations at Harvard and beyond. With all hell breaking loose at home, and any semblance of “parenting” hanging ragged in the wind, the two cousins are left largely to their own devices.

Suddenly freed from old rules and restrictions, they head out onto the streets of Cambridge, which become their concrete playground, tumbling headlong into a world of politics, sex, drugs, rock and roll. Chickie and Hen forge an unbreakable bond as they join forces and hearts to stay afloat in the sea of upheaval that surrounds them, the lines of family love and loyalty often blurring.

Cover image of the book 'Down To The River' by author Anne Whitney Pierce

ANNE WHITNEY PIERCE – (photo credit Steve Monahan)

Image of author Anne Whitney Pierce - Photo credit Steve MonahanAnne Whitney Pierce is a lifelong Cantabrigian. She majored in French Literature at Brandeis University and spent a year living and studying in Paris. It wasn’t until several years later, after getting a masters degree in elementary education from Tufts University and while teaching junior high school in a rough-and-tumble mill town in Vermont, that she decided to pick up the pen.

While raising her three daughters, she taught writing in the graduate Writing Program at Emerson College in Boston and to younger students in the Cambridge Public Schools.

Her short fiction has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kansas Quarterly, Crosscurrents, and the Southern Review, among others. Her work has been included in the O’Henry Prize Story Collection and has won several awards, including the Nelson Algren Award, the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, the Paterson Fiction Prize, New Voices Award and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award.

Anne is the author of two previous full length books, Galaxy Girls: Wonder Women (1993) and Rain Line (2000). Down to the River is her latest novel and is published by Regal House Publishing 

She loves eating out, going to movies, swimming, running, and hanging out with her daughters and extended family.

Visit Anne at her website

“The city of Cambridge is often as much a character in my work as its human counterparts. My family has deep roots in the city and a long-standing involvement in the social, artistic and political arenas. My mother was a professional documentary photographer and started the photography program at the Cambridge public high school, publishing a book of photographs entitled, No Easy Roses: A Look at the lives of City Teenagers.  My father, a lawyer and later a judge, was an early champion of women’s rights and fought for access to safe and legal abortions in the late 1960s. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood my entire life, 02138 — rumored to be the most opinionated zip code on the planet.  Whether or not that’s true, it’s a vibrant and diverse place, and for me it’s always been home”

Cover image of the book 'Down To The River' by author Anne Whitney Pierce

FIRST LINES

PROLOGUE

The barnyard names were just coincidence; the rest was by design. Chickie was Minerva, a nickname shortened over time from Chickadee. Hen was short for Henry. They were first cousins, born third and last children at the tail end of 1951 at the Women’s Lying-In Hospital in Boston.

CHAPTER ONESUMMER 1966

As Chickie lifts the lid of the cookie jar, the smell of damp sugar rises. She flattens her hand against the crumb-covered bottom of the jar and licks her sticky palm clean. Out in the hallway, her father, Nash, is talking on the phone. Chickie can always tell when he’s talking to his twin brother, her uncle Remi. His voice is different, softer, sputtered out in jumbled bits that wouldn’t add up to anyone else – code words, half mind reading – twin talk.

Cover image of the book 'Down To The River' by author Anne Whitney Pierce

MEMORABLE LINES

“Raised to be God-fearing, if not religious, both Violet and Faye came to think of all this – their lives as silent, fettered wives and mothers – as the trade-off for marrying well”

.

“There’ll be no keeping Chickie from dancing, or dancing from Chickie. It will feed her and gnaw away at her, and in the end it will pull her away. For once a child has an obsession, she no longer has need of a mother”

.

“You can’t just pull anger out of a hat and make it work for you. You have to feel bad first. You always have to suffer”

.

“He doesn’t want to answer any more questions with “I don’t know.” He wants his son to be responsible. He’d like him to be brave. Remi just wants to be the good guy, the good father. Just for once, he’d like his son to look up to him, to trust him”

.

“Meditation is said to cleanse you, make you peaceful. Peace Faye would welcome, but the cleansing part scares her, as if she might be bleached invisible by the sun, as if some part of her might go whirling down the drain, a part as yet undiscovered, but without which she’ll never be whole”

.

“They’re not going far. You wait and see. Ten years from now they’ll still be hanging around with their dirty laundry, looking for a hot meal. Kids these days don’t really grow up. Have you noticed, Nash? They don’t worry about the future. But surprise, the future’s here, isn’t it? It’s all so goddamned different. We grew up so fast. We had to”

Cover image of the book 'Down To The River' by author Anne Whitney Pierce

REVIEW

“A family saga set in the late 1960s in Cambridge, Massachusetts against the backdrop of the Vietnam War” 

Well! I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders, now that I have closed the final page on this epic family saga and I am able to breathe freely again, without feeling quite so claustrophobic and suffocated. Author Anne Whitney Pierce, admits that she likes her novels long and rambling, so I can see why these pages might have spent many years, shoved under the bed and half finished, obviously just waiting for her to have the stamina and strength to resurrect them, in anticipation of bringing events to a dramatic finale, which imploded spectacularly and left me feeling oddly bereft, as in this wonderfully detailed character analysis of two related and completely dysfunctional families, there really were no winners and, I suspect, that is always how Anne always intended it to be!

Before I even attempt to offer what I hope is a largely spoiler-free, potted-version, of the story which unfolded between the many pages of this book, I really feel that a warning about some of the explicit cultural content contained therein, including scenes of a sexual, alcohol and drug fuelled nature, is in order, for the unwary readers amongst you. Although I would also add, that such references are on the whole, commensurate with the period of the late 1960s/early 1970s, to which the majority of the narrative and dialogue pertains, so in that respect are not gratuitous or used out of context.

Twins have always had and always will have, that second sense of being as one, thinking as one, acting as one and protecting each other no matter what and without question. Nash and Remi (Naylor and Remington) Potts, are the end of a dynasty. The family’s inherited wealth and entitled privilege, has all but run dry and under the rather untender ministrations and extravagances of the two virtually alcoholic brothers, it is only a matter of time before life as they have known it, will come to a spectacular end and only genteel poverty awaits them. Nash has always been his brother’s loyal  protector though, so cut one and they both bleed, hurt Remi and you will face the wrath of Nash. However, Remi has more secrets than Nash would ever have thought possible, which should they ever become public knowledge, or be spoken aloud, will have the potential to damage their familial bonds beyond repair.

Their attempts at earning a living for themselves in business, are faltering and rather haphazard, and their marriages which were more of a convenience for the brothers and a state of safety and security for their then new and unworldly wives, are definitely a fast fading star. They live next door to each other and each have two children of the same ages. In this golden time of the late 1950s though, parenting is considered to be very much a young person’s game, so when a drunken evening and a reckless wager, by Nash and Remi, results in both Faye and Violet, who are now in their thirties, becoming pregnant for a third time, after so many intervening years, life is about to change dramatically for them all once again.

Nash and Remi have never been much use around their respective houses, which are now in a sad and unloved state of disrepair and chaos, and neither of them feel any responsibility for helping out with the children, especially not babies Minerva (Chickie) and Henry (Hen). Faye and Violet begin to let things go and that incudes the reins on their older offspring, who have now either gone off to college, or eagerly left home to find their own way in the world. Chickie and Hen, unfettered and almost feral, are therefore closer than most cousins and some might say far too close, although their parents seem completely oblivious to the dangers this may present, as they grow up.

With a war taking hold in Vietnam, protests on the streets, constant bomb threats and racial tensions, the latter which because of their lax parenting, Nash and Violet will soon find out all about first-hand, both Faye and Violet decide that now has to be ‘their’ time, so Chickie and Hen, Nash and Remi, are all pretty much left to their own devices, as the newly liberated and independent women both decide that owning their own businesses, is the way to go. With moral codes changing and even in some cases crumbling away, when a vulnerable and disturbed Chickie, has personal and traumatic experience of a procedure which is still then very much illegal in many States, her extended family, after their initial moment of shock, appear unmoved to alter their ways, or attempt to steer their children in a more informed or safety conscious direction, and it is only Hen who is standing there by her side through it all. A clear-minded, although admittedly scared Hen, who has made his mind up that he will not be drafted into a war he doesn’t think is just or fair, so will be doing anything and everything possible to avoid his call-up, whether that is ultimately with or without Chickie.

Both Faye and Violet have secrets of their own though, and although Nash does manage to work out what Violet is hiding from him, a poor hapless Remi just doesn’t get where Faye is coming from at all, or how damaged she is and has always been. Both helpless, guileless men, assume that offering their forgiveness and promises of their undying love, which I truly think they believed when they spoke the words, will fix things, and they fail to see that it is all too little, too late.

The last time we see the two families together is at the graduation of  Chickie and Hen, although even then, one of Nash’s daughters is absent without explanation. I suspect, although the ending is as surreal as the times, that this is the dissolution of the Potts clan and the last time they will ever all meet again. The final scenario played out, still intrigues me though, as I could have taken it in one of two directions, which would have had such different outcomes for at least one of the Potts twins. Was it simply a tragic accident, an act of uncontrollable rage, or the sudden unacceptable realisation that a hitherto expected way of life was about to change forever?

From a post I read on Anne’s website, it would some that some elements of this storyline track that of her own teenage years. However, as I seem to have enjoyed a  much more sheltered upbringing, despite us being of a similar age, I am certain I have only managed to scrape the surface nuances of this multi-layered, complex, intense, textured, and totally absorbing storyline, where what isn’t said, is every bit as important as the words which appear on the pages, although that might easily cause the writing to appear lacking in some fluency. The chapters are quite long, although really the story is one wonderfully immersive, continuous timeline anyway, and there are some well placed paragraph breaks, where I could draw breath and take stock of the current prevailing situation.

The physical footprint of the storyline is very small, so whilst some excellent descriptive narrative and thoughtful observational dialogue really evoke a real sense of time, and places I could track for myself on the map, this saga is really all about the characters, their feelings and interactions with each other and with the wider community around them. Characters who on the whole, were not authentic, most unlikeable and to whom I was unable to relate in any way, let alone invest in as any kind of reliable role models for future generations. For much of the time the Potts adults acted more childishly and petulantly than their offspring and the rest of their lives they spent in denial of the realities and responsibilities of parenthood, forging for themselves a one way ticket into self-destruct mode. This lack of ethics and shattered family dynamics, left the Potts children vulnerable, volatile, emotionally starved and a raw complex jigsaw of human emotions.

What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This story was definitely one of a kind, having the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next. Being quite close in age to the author, this is very much a story of my era, although a vast ocean separates us in culture, making some elements of the family saga relatable, whilst other aspects are so very far removed from my own experiences. Therefore, I can only recommend that you read Down To The River for yourself to see where your journey leads you!

Image of author Anne Whitney Pierce - Photo credit Steve Monahan

A complimentary kindle download of this book for review, was made available for review purposes.

Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.

I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 4 out of 5 stars!

 

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