Goyen opens with a brief discussion about her suffering from chronic anxiety attacks in childhood and beyond and how she learned to cope. Then, before returning to that subject, she shares thoughts and ordinary experiences that came with being a parent (or in her case, fear of never being a mother) and stories from what she describes as her family’s normal, typical middle-American life. “You might be a lot like us,” she tells her readers. The most gripping section (and the longest) describes a gradually escalating medical issue that arose when the couple thought their problems were solved. Although Goyen had a stillborn child, she and her husband finally had two sons (born 19 months apart). Their happiness felt complete. Trouble returned when the youngest, 7-year-old Blake, fell deathly ill with mysterious symptoms. For months, while they went from doctor to doctor, taking him to the hospital (sometimes to the ER) for diagnoses and treatments, their happy life became a nightmare, and their faith was tested. The author’s detailed account reads almost like a detective story about a child and his family held hostage by illness. It’s easy to empathize and care with Goyen, and her chatty, confiding, openness as a writer makes her seem like a friend. Fans of Anne Lamott (Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, 1993) will recognize and appreciate a similar sense of authorial immediacy. Goyen conveys with lyric beauty how faith in God, love for her husband and devotion to her sons now guides her response to tragedy and her approach to life. The “river” in the title refers to the family’s favorite vacation spot in Red River, New Mexico, a place that “flowed straight to my soul like a river through my heart,” but it’s easy to feel that the real river she cherishes is that of God’s love.
A child’s illness becomes the focal point for a riveting true-life drama.