River of Heaven
Lee Martin
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Buy *River of Heaven* by Lee Martin online

River of Heaven
Lee Martin
Three Rivers Press
288 pages
April 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Decades of betrayal and guilt are buried deep within the pages of this powerful novel where a deeply fearful man finds it easier to keep the truth away and live quietly with his dogs, even though he knows that it may be a stupid and cowardly way to live. Plagued by his lifelong failure to love his best friend enough, Sam Brady has lived all of his 63 years in Mt. Gilead, a small town in southern Illinois, his only real friend his kindly neighbor, Arthur, who still mourns the loss of his dear wife, Bess, now six months gone.

Both Sam and Arthur share the silent misery of men living alone. When the two elderly gentlemen are not keeping each other company at night, they're spending their time learning to cook as part of a widower's group. Every Wednesday evening they work up a new and exotic dish led by bright, confident Vera Moon, who once held a flame for Cal, Sam's transient brother.

Apart from Arthur's occasional companionship, Sam's only real company is his basset hound, Stump, a gorgeous animal heavy on patience, steadfast with his devotion, mild tempered and affectionate. Sam is by nature a cautious man, but just as thinks that he has put his troubled past behind him, images of his brother appear flickering on CNN, his face at once shocking and comforting.

Later, when Cal (now a local hero after rescuing some hostages in a standoff) turns up at Sam's house, Sam is just thankful that after all these years his brother is alive. Perhaps with Cal back in his life, Sam will finally have a chance again at family and be able to put at rest the mystery of everything he's been carrying with him regarding his best friend, Dewey Finn, and Dewey's mysterious death decades ago.

But Cal's arrival, and the recognition that he's been hanging around less than salubrious individuals, does more than throw Sam's life into a tailspin. Cal's presence causes his younger brother to finally confront the memories of that rain-soaked and windswept Friday evening in April 1953, when Dewey unexpectedly and shockingly died atop the Western Union rail tracks.

Meanwhile, Arthur and his young granddaughter, Maddie, continue to orbit around Sam's life, Maddie needing to find a safe harbor from her abusive mother and ultimately finding a sense of security in Sam's stoical isolation. Both Arthur and Maddie give Sam a reason to love again - at least until a terrible act of violence involving Arthur and Cal shakes the very foundations of Sam and Maddie's existence.

In the end, Cal and his enigmatic past most stoke the fires of Sam's emotions, his steel-blue eyes still looking like he's mad as hell or just scared half to death. Then there's the ghost of Dewey, the boy with the "wild red hair and freckles across his nose," green eyes, long lashes, and a smile that always seemed to put Sam at ease.

Although a bit far-fetched in places with its subplots of family secrets and mind-boggling terrorist conspiracies, the novel more than makes up for these deficiencies with its fully rounded and compassionate characters. Even the backstory set in 1959 - when most men had no idea how far love of this nature can reach - is imbued with a grand sense of legitimacy and possesses an astonishing depth of emotion.

Ultimately, Lee Martin provides a delicate tapestry of human motivations and predicaments as his multi-layered plot centers on two brothers who loved each other before they became unraveled and their lives were scattered. Sam comes across as a man tormented and broken who cannot begin to ask for help. Unfortunately, he has gone throughout much of his adult life almost stagger-blind, feeling in the dark while also taking to heart the cruel lessons of love and loss.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Michael Leonard, 2008

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