When Annie Lark is left to die after a devastating earthquake does terrible damage up and down the mighty Mississippi in 1811, she is rescued by French river pirate and fur trapper Jacques Ducharme.
The gentle man who lovingly tends his “River Wife” over the following years is a far cry from the greedy desperado who obsesses over building Jacques Landing, a haven for river travelers, plying his piracy as opportunities arise, profiting even from the War Between the States, hoarding his treasures to dole out to wives and lovers.
Many women pass through Jacques’ life, but none as significant as Annie, his first real passion until a horrendous event that tears their marriage apart, each bereft without the solace of the other. By then Jacques’ deeds have changed him, his soul too scarred for Annie ever to heal, years passed in bitterness.
More than a century later, in 1930, new bride Hedie Rails Ducharme marries Clement Ducharme. Left alone while her husband pursues his criminal enterprises to provide for them, Hedie discovers Annie’s journals, pouring over the stories of Jacques’ adventures and Annie’s grievous disappointments.
The journals help Hedie, also a young bride, to cope with a marriage to a man twice her age. Like Jacques, Clement is a man given to extremes, returning to Jacques Landing, determined to make a life for his new wife. Whatever his crimes, Hedie is never to know, expected to remain at home through the long nights, the journals her only company. Whether it is the wildness of the river and the land or a deep flaw in her man, Hedie is forced to consider the similarities of such river wives, women who wait and minister to their husbands’ needs as they stumble home, often battered, increasingly haunted.
Perhaps in her naivete, Hedie has made a foolish judgment, in love with Clement’s promises and sweet words. A century before, in similar circumstances, Annie, the first River Wife, cannot resist her feelings for the man who saves her when all around is being claimed by an angry earth.
There are other important female characters: Jacques’ second wife, the greedy Laura Burke Shut Ducharme, and the bold and brave Omah Ducharme, who fights by Jacques’ side to make her own fortune. As cursed as the ill-gotten goods he hides, his secret treasures, only Omah knows the truth of Jacques’ wealth. But all his money cannot restore the promise of those first years with Annie, when they owned little yet had everything.
Corrupted by his greed for land and security, Jacques marks his property and the Ducharme women with tragedy. Agee weaves these fascinating characters through the centuries, the place as vivid and compelling as the people who build their lives from the river’s bounty.
Annie haunts the pages and Hedie’s thoughts, whispering comfort and caution through the years, as real for Hedie as the violent husband slipping through her fingers. Capturing the essence of the wilderness and the bold men who carve the future from the river, Agee’s characters are beautifully rendered, one reaching to another in an unending chain of loss and disappointment, the river waiting, impatient to claim them all.