In a debut that mixes hothouse melodrama with the eventual getting of wisdom, a Canadian farming family is shattered by the arrival of a charismatic draft dodger.
What happened at the Ward farm during that summer of 1966, when American “River” Jordan (a Paul Newman look-alike) worked there, that ended up driving a deep wedge between mother Nettie and daughter Natalie, separating them for decades? Then again, what didn’t happen? Milner’s first novel initially evokes an idyll of remote rural life and a happy family, whose dynamic is completely rearranged by the inclusion of dope-smoking, free-thinking, kindhearted River. Narrated some three decades later by restless, exiled Natalie, heading home to see her mother (whose deathbed reveries also round out events), the story moves from a sunny small-town scenario to something far darker. Natalie “seduced” River one night, only to later find him in bed with her beloved eldest brother Boyer. River gets lost in the mountains and dies, and Natalie is raped by the creepy mayor who blackmails her into silence by threatening to expose the homosexuality (a crime in Canada until 1969). Nevertheless, abuse triggered by homophobia threatens the family; Boyer is horribly damaged in a fire that burns down his cabin; and Natalie finds herself pregnant and, after giving birth to a stillborn child, leaves town. In a tear-jerking, lengthy resolution, Natalie and her family put all the pieces back together as the narrative once again swings between the soapy and the sensitive.
An intermittently heavy-handed parable of redemption.