In the American South, a young woman struggles to overcome poverty and abuse and make a better life.
For Rose McDonald, life in Orangeburg, South Carolina, is marked by a vicious cycle of tragedy and poverty. Her story begins in the late ‘50s with her mother, Wilma, a sweet-natured, sixteen-year-old daughter of a moonshiner of Cherokee descent. While visiting a bar with her best friend, she meets a Marine named Joe McCloud. Wilma is afraid of what Joe might think if he discovers she’s poor. Although Joe comes from a wealthy family, he’s estranged from his haughty mother and chose not to follow his brother, Calhoun, into high society. They marry when Wilma becomes pregnant; Joe reenlists in the Marines and is sent to Vietnam. Rose is born while he’s in training and Calhoun steps in to help the young family. Wilma’s devastated when Joe’s killed in action in Vietnam. Lonely, she begins a relationship with Bubba, an abusive drunk. Meanwhile, Rose grows closer to her grandparents, but she cannot escape Bubba’s unsavory attentions, which culminate in a horrific attack. Determined to overcome the cycle of poverty and abuse that marked Wilma’s life, Rose attends college and becomes a police officer, a career choice that leads to a reckoning with her past. Although the novel takes its name from the titular character, Rose McDonald, it really has two protagonists, Rose and her mother, Wilma. The first half of the novel is devoted to Wilma’s story and the circumstances of Rose’s birth. Rose’s harrowing but ultimately redemptive journey is followed in the second half. This ambitious structure is well-executed thanks to Rivera’s carefully paced narrative. The memorable leads are surrounded by a memorable cast of supporting characters including Joe and Calhoun McCloud; men whose love for Wilma and Rose help shape their destinies. For all its successes, the novel needed restraint in the euphemism department during the sex scenes. During one scene, the male anatomy is described as a “log”, “flagpole”, and “bratwurst.”
Despite occasionally florid prose, Rivera's debut is a tightly-woven narrative with vivid settings and characters.