A debut environmental novel explores struggles both past and distressingly present.
Jess Jensen and Piah have a lot in common. They’ve both grown up on the banks of the Nesika River and lost younger sisters to its current. Nevertheless, as they press on into adulthood—Piah into motherhood and Jess into a career in field biology—they continue to feel a connection to the river. And when it’s threatened, they find a link between them in dreams and visions, despite their insurmountable differences—that Piah lived 200 years before Jess, a Molalla tribeswoman rather than a modern Oregonian. As Piah tries to interpret her premonitions of disaster and the reality of sickness besetting her village, Jess fights to get a dam removed from the river, knowing that the structure’s effect on the ecosystem will be disastrous but unable to get anyone to listen. Jess finds herself with fewer and fewer allies, as her boyfriend, Jeff, works for the power company and seems more committed to compromise than to what’s best for the ecology, and her friend Suzie abuses her trust with radical environmentalists. As time passes for Jess and Piah, their battles continue to rage, taking a horrific toll. It’s only when they bond and seek out the lessons they have to teach each other that peace—and maybe victory—may come within their grasp. The story and characters here are strong; Reddick fleshes out both protagonists’ worlds with thought and compassion. In the present day in particular, chapters from Jeff’s and Jess’ mothers’ perspectives lend depth to the shifting conflicts. It’s also noteworthy that, for a novel so grounded in the realities of science and conservation, Piah’s Molalla faith is treated with genuine respect and reverence. The only problem is that the prose can be somewhat stilted at times: “One of her first projects had been to hire a professional photographer to take pictures of the Nesika, both above and below the dams. She put the photos together in a beautiful book called The River’s Cry that she hoped would help people better understand the need to completely restore the spawning grounds above the Green Springs dam.” While it’s a shame that these moments will sometimes pull readers out of the book, the majority of the description, narration, and dialogue is smooth and evocative.
History, science, and heart make for a read that’s both cozy and complex.