This debut novel by Toronto writer Lori Ann Bloomfield offers many riches: a vivid potted history of Canada in the time surrounding WWI, a nicely detailed account of small town life in rural Ontario, plus a rousing reminder of why the women’s movement was necessary in the first place.
A river child is an evil spirit that lives in a river, waiting to drown children in order to assume their shape and then live on land. The river child brings bad luck, withering crops and killing farm animals. Or so the inhabitants of the small village of Walvern in Ontario, Canada believe.
The arrival of a meteorite during Peg’s baptism, combined with the fact of her pale eyes and her habit of walking by the river soon make the villagers suspect that Peg is indeed the dreaded spirit. Crazy stuff, yes, but not back in the early nineteen hundreds, when religion and superstition were inextricably knotted together, and not in rural Ontario, where the failure of one crop could result in permanent tragedy for a family.
As is usually the case, enough coincidences occur to rapidly cement the belief amongst the villagers that Peg is a river child. But despite being a social outcast, Peg grows up loving Walvern, even as her sister Sarah longs to get away to the big city. It takes nothing less than a World War to shake the good villagers out of their silliness and superstitions.
Apart from a too-tidy ending for my taste, this novel is finely shaped and paced, and very readable indeed. But Bloomfield at times pulls her punches—the story doesn’t quite deliver the emotional goods the outline suggests, mostly because the adult Peg’s internal life isn’t realized deeply enough. (The first part of the novel, which deals with the young Peg and her mother, is near perfect). Bloomfield holds back when she should burrow her way into her protagonist’s heart, with the result that I didn’t care for Peg as passionately as I might have. For instance, (SEMI-SPOILER WARNING!) when Sarah runs away to Toronto leaving Peg to manage the farm single-handedly, Peg is “consumed by rage” at Sarah’s selfishness. “Beneath the rage, determination began to glow, forged in the heat of her fury. A plan started to form in her mind. She only needed to feed herself and a few of the animals.” The thrill of evoked emotion is mild with this sort of writing. The bottom line: The Last River Child is a promising debut, definitely good if not great.
PS: This book is published by a lovely little feminist publishing house Second Story Press. Do check out their site, for their other offerings look pretty interesting too.