There is an old axiom that all rivers lead to the sea, the idea being that eventually everything finds its way home. In Angela Palm’s starred debut Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, however, home is a place she’s spent most of her life trying to escape.
Growing up in a liminal space between two small Indiana towns, Palm’s youth was defined by physical boundaries. Her neighborhood belonged to neither town. Her parents limited her exploration to near their house, which was built along the Kankakee River in the exact spot the rerouted river previously flowed. But even as a child, Palm was a keen observer of her shrunken world that seemed to speak the language of water and rocks. “I was living on this land that had its history in its face constantly, because of the [Native American] artifacts we would find and the way the river always flooded, trying to go back to where it’s supposed to be,” Palm says. “To me, that was like us living in this river’s history, whether we wanted to or not.”
The river’s complicated history and displacement serve as a fulcrum for each of the narrative threads Palm explores—the book was originally submitted as a collection of 13 essays and three short stories—many of which lead back to one less visible but vital boundary: girlhood. In between those small towns and in her own home, a woman’s voice was largely ignored. Palm’s story of discovering her autonomy is powerful, and the writing equally so.
“It wasn’t until the age of 30 when I felt real ownership over my own path,” Palm says. “I had to look at what I felt was a very oppressed voice within my own family and say ‘No,’ to that. I was hesitant to put different men in the book because it was like giving that power back over to them. In the end, it felt more freeing to include them than to pretend it hadn’t happened. It was like dismantling itself and reassembling a better version, one that doesn’t rely on that history, but instead what I’ve learned from that history.”
One man’s history in particular is tied closely to Palm’s own: Corey, a next-door neighbor that Palm had long envisioned as her future husband. Those hopes were dashed when a burglary gone wrong left two people murdered and Corey in jail for the rest of his life without parole. Corey’s story is a tragic tale on all accounts—crime is rarely as simple as it’s presented in the media—compounded by the fact that for the 16 years Corey was in jail, Palm had no contact with him. Still a teenager when the murders happened, the incident left her reeling. In adulthood, she wondered what could have been, who he’d really been, who she’d been to be in love with a murderer. In many ways, Corey embodied home for her—the good and the bad. And she admits that the last few essays, which were completed after the original manuscript was submitted, “couldn’t have come about without me having seen him.”
So what is home, and do all rivers, so to speak, lead back there? That depends, of course. For Palm, who now lives in Vermont with her husband and children, home is a way forward. “Eventually, I think we forgive the land and the associations we have with it,” she writes. “We see it for what it is, what it always was: a complex terrain with a history and a future. A place where we were, for a time, becoming what we are now.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, TX.