The River Wife is a panoramic story–from the 1812 New Madrid quake to the 1930s. Central to the story is the enigmatic, Jacques DuCharme, a one-armed river pirate whose wealth and wild ways become legendary.
Lonely and pregnant, Hedie Ducharmes Rails finds a journal that belongs to Annie Lark, who is married to Jacques Ducharme, a descendant of Jacques DuCharme. Though Hedie does not to hear a sad story, Annie’s story quickly becomes a part of her own. According to Hedie, “Annie’s voice kept speaking in my head as if it had become my own.”
Hedie reads how Jacques rescued Annie, by removing the beam that crushed her legs in the New Madrid quake. They become man and wife but Jacques never allows Annie to become a true wife. He calls her a “queen” but wants her to stay outside of his economic pursuits. He conceals how he makes money–how he operates Jacques Landing, the inn he built along the Mississippi.
What is sad is that Annie Lark never finds the respect and equality she craves from her husband, Jacques. She turns to Audubon because he respects Annie’s art work and scientific pursuits. Turning to Audubon, however, leads to tragedy. Annie and Jacques become estranged which indirectly leads to Annie’s death.
Omah’s story dominates the second part of the book. A free
African-American woman, Omah becomes Jacques’ partner in his illicit business. Since she is on a more equal footing with him, she is, in a way, Jacques’ true wife.
Omah participates in Jacques’ river piracy and accumulates a share of his wealth. The wealth gives her status that she would not have otherwise. When Jacques marries Laura, Omah insists that she is not be called Laura’s girl or servant.
Though she participates in his piracy, Omah’s bravery and loyalty is admirable. She accompanies Laura to Hot Springs, AK where trouble brews anew. Laura’s disloyalty contrasts sharply with Omah’s steadfastness. Still, its hard to believe that Jacques lets Laura–the mother of his only child–succumb to the cruel fate that befalls her.
The last part of the novel focuses upon Little Maddie Ducharme who was just a baby when her mother died. Her story is also tinged with sadness. Like her contemporary counterpart, Hedie Ducharme Railes, Maddie is consumed with saving Jacques’ Landing. Though her husband wants to return to Montana, she insists on staying and raising her child on her father’s land.
The novel can be seen an ancestor tale with the ghosts of the past visiting succeeding generations. Annie Lark’s ghost visits Maddie DuCharme in one crucial scene. Her journal gets into the hands of Hedie DuCharme Rails who, like Maddie, also sets her sights on finding Jacques’ ill-gotten wealth.
The River Wife is a fast-paced read filled with adventure, heartache, tragedy, and beauty. If you like family dramas and historical novels, you will enjoy this book.
Agee’s most recent novel is The Bones of Paradise.
Agee is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,