Donna Milner, in her beautiful and multi-layered debut novel, proves that the past cannot be altered: it can only be lived with - or buried. Journalist Natalie Ward is now a happily married middle-aged mother who harbors secrets from her past, mostly of the family variety, and mostly sublimated. When her teenage daughter, Jenny, phones her to tell her that her mother Nettie is dying, Natalie knows that she must return to the town of her childhood and relive so many of these secrets, both
the gorgeous and the catastrophic.
It is the turbulent mid-Sixties, when even the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the chaos of the Vietnam War have begun to reverberate throughout the sleepy town of Atwood situated just miles from the U.S./Canadian border. These events, however, seem far from the life of impressionable sixteen-year-old Natalie, who lives a secluded existence with her parents, Gus and Nettie, and her three brothers, the younger Morgan and Carl, and Natalie's favorite, the brilliant, bookish older brother, Boyer.
The Wards seem content to keep to themselves on their family-owned dairy farm. Natalie, in particular, relishes her self-imposed alienation, especially those months in the long, hot summer of 1966, when all of life seems to be constantly drenched in the golden glow of the summer sun. At school, Natalie does little to encourage friendships, content to spend most of her spare time with Boyer, playing word games in his room up in the attic
and reading his books, happy to just while away lazy afternoons.
This delicate family dynamic is doomed to erupt when a young American draft-dodger by the name of River Jordan, employed by Nettie as a handyman, suddenly flows into the lives of the Ward family with his large green duffel bag,
a guitar case over his shoulder and "his hair the sun-streaked colour of a hayfield drying in the sun." At first glance, River comes across as a bit of hippie, perhaps representative of all of the oddly dressed young Americans marching beneath peace signs, protesting the Vietnam War and sticking flowers into the gun barrels of riot police.
River's gentle and beguiling nature seems a perfect fit for this close-knit family, especially for politically astute Boyer, who ultimately understands how River's journey across the border was in fact an exercise in demanding his democratic right to choose.
The impressionable Natalie cannot help but fall deep under River's spell, his eyes entrancing her "like the colour of a blue-green ocean she had only seen in her imagination."
It is not long before she finds herself increasingly attracted to this caring and carefree young man.
Only Gus, a blue-collar working man who wears his long-johns like a second skin winter and summer, belies an instinctive mistrust of River, considering him one of the "spoiled greasy haired hooligans" who stand under a peace banner because they donít have the guts to fight for their country. Whatever the case, Gus's feelings are perhaps fortuitous, because none of the Wards are prepared for what follows in the aftermath of River's stay and the eventual heartache that sweeps like a cold wind down through the valley, shattering this family and ultimately blowing them to the four winds.
Although River remains as innocent as a babe in the woods, Natalie and her particular need for adolescent affection cause a terrible act of betrayal which erodes the jagged edges of her sibling's resistance. It isn't until thirty-five years later, traveling toward Atwood on a bus "like a time machine carrying her in slow motion back to her past," that Natalie can finally see beyond the faded edges of memory and ask for forgiveness from her mother and, more importantly, from Boyer.
A novel about the bonds of family, After River is also about the past and what has been left behind. Milner captures the beautiful natural rhythms of the day-to-day workings of dairy farm life and the ways that personal jealousies can sometimes balloon into ruthless and bitter vendettas. Natalie longs to unburden herself, to confess her part in the downfall of her family and to say out loud how it all came about, and where it could have been changed. Ultimately, however, she's also hampered by this terrible event that forever changed the way she is viewed by both Boyer and Nettie, even the other family members.
It is hard to fathom what is more profound in this novel: the bigotry and intolerance that gradually isolate the Ward family in a town where there is little respect for accepting anything that is remotely different, or a young girl so blinded with what she believes is love that she gradually loses sight of reality and unleashes some of the most devastating consequences.
In the end, she's a child lost in the moment, believing that it is her desire and the misguided belief in her need to be loved that ultimately forces her to grow up.
Throughout, Milner's graceful prose is deliberately propulsive but also quite plain as she moves her narrative forward toward
its emotional conclusion. The author's talent lies in her careful plotting as the older Natalie begins to accept the solitary strictures of her youth, recognizing that she
is forever bound to Nettie and Boyer by their shared secret. Only then is Natalie able to let go of her unnamed resentment and try to make peace with the irrevocable tragedy of errors that she blames herself for creating all those years ago.