A white boy and an elderly black man form an unlikely friendship in this coming-of-age novel.
Adams Creek, Indiana, 1958. Ten-year-old Kurt Baumann and his brother, Kyle, are still hurting from the death of their father, but they find solace in their adventures along the nearby Eel River. “My river bore many faces,” Kurt claims with pride, “often muddy, sometimes filled with tree trunks and limbs after a crackling, marauding thunderstorm, sometimes slick and smooth after a long, deep freeze, and sometimes jolting with bergs thumping on the center bridge abutment following a spring thaw.” It is along the river that Kurt meets Dutch Clemons, a retired Pullman porter who likes to fish the Eel. Dutch’s race makes him an object of fascination for young Kurt. Dutch is the only black person in the otherwise white neighborhood. Dutch helps expand Kurt’s racial awareness, but more than that, he provides a father figure for a boy in need of one: teaching him about trains and music and even reprimanding him for shoplifting. Their friendship continues through the daily happenings and minor tragedies in Adams Creek, but when a girl is found dead in an Eel River fishing hole, Dutch comes under suspicion. Frohreich’s (Guy’s Guide to Domestic Engineering, 2009) smooth prose varies from soft, almost dreamy descriptions of the Indiana setting to more essaylike expositions on various historical events: “George Pullman did not invent the sleeping car but outsmarted and outmaneuvered his competitors. Early on, he built more cars, standardized them, and made favorable deals with the railroad companies to lease his cars and crews.” The novel has a decidedly rosy view of the past, both in its nostalgia for mid-20th-century Indiana and its rather clumsy representation of race. But the book’s primary flaw is that it doesn’t offer much of a story. The author takes frequent chapterlong digressions to discuss various characters’ backstories or historical events, and some crimes at the end feel tacked on rather than an organic outgrowth of the plot. Though the underlying message is admirable, Kurt and Dutch’s friendship never feels as real or cathartic as it is clearly meant to be.
A messy, meandering tale of racism and community in civil rights–era Indiana.