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River Woman

A Novel


As she washes her laundry in the Rio Minho, Kelithe is startled from her daydreams by women's screams. It is not until she sees a small body in the shallow water that she realizes what has happened. Her young son has drowned. The Women of Standfast, Jamaica, whisper that she let Timothy die so that she could seize her chance to join her mother in America. Numb with grief, Kelithe lacks the strength to confront them. She can only wait for the funeral. And for her mother to come stand by her at last.
What really happened at the river? It is a question Kelithe's mother cannot ask and an accusation Kelithe will not answer. And it lies at the heart of this shattering novel of promises kept and broken. In spare prose, Donna Hemans lays bare the human heart, exploring the unyielding bonds joining mother and child and the many facets of truth.

River Woman
Donna Hemans

Questions and Topics For Discussion

1.      The lines between mother and child are often blurred in this story, as many of those who give birth are mere children themselves.  Look at the ways that the women of Standfast mother each other, the town, and their loved ones.  In what ways does this communal sense of mothering shape, alter and create the town?  Are there negative aspects to this type of child rearing? 

2.      Discuss the setting in this novel.  How does the hot, dry stagnant environment work with the plot?  The author peppers her prose with adjectives, many of which are so visceral that they border on disturbing.  In what ways does this exacerbate the high level of emotional intensity of this novel?

3.      Men have a somewhat elusive role in this novel.  They are often presented as peripheral to central scenes and, as characters, react more than act, aid more than lead, and watch more than participate.  Why does this seem to be the case?  Is it simply because the story is told through the point of view of a family of women that men are relegated to the sidelines? Do you see male roles shifting as the novel progresses?

4.      On page 176, during the bridge-burning scene, the narrator states, “The young women shattered the symbol that had kept the elder folks mired in the past and waiting for their government to hand out a future.  The young women took charge.”  Why does the author call attention to the fact that it is the women who finally act out?  Is this somehow representative of the ways that women, in the fact of absent males, seem to dominate the world of this novel?  How do you account for the fact that women, who usually maintain roles as creators, are responsible for so much destruction in this story? 

5.      There is the sense that it takes time, patience, and caring to be a good mother, a luxury that neither Sonya nor Kelithe had -- seeing as how neither of them were old enough to grow into that.  As such, do you think there are mitigating circumstances that may help explain the way that they neglected or abandoned their children?  To what extent do you judge the women for their actions?

6.      In the world of Standfast the past never really goes away.  Memories of wrongs, both on a personal level and a public level, affect the people of the town deeply, making it impossible for them to ever more on or to ever break free from the bitterness that holds them.  And it is only in the ultimate action of destruction and rebellion that the people seem somehow freed from their past.  Are there parallels between the destruction of the bridge and the way that Kelithe allegedly lets her son die? How might these parallels demonstrate the disappointment over lost potential and resentment that plague the people of Standfast?  If the burning of the bridge was a symbolic break from the past for the townsfolk, how should we view Timothy’s death?

7.      The women of Standfast are outraged that Kelithe, at least in their eyes, let her son die – so much so that his death becomes an obsession for the townsfolk, and takes on a life of its own.  Why is it that they see the boy’s death as a personal affront, even though they are not family?   How might the following quote from page 151 shed light on this question? “It was as if each woman brought her painful past, as if by telling her story she was being healed.” In what way do the women of Standfast need to be healed?

8.      It seems that Kelithe affirms for the women of Standfast their visions of themselves as good mother.  No matter how poorly they may have treated their children, they never let them die.  Even Sonya, Kelithe’s own mother, often compares her sins with her daughter’s, reassuring herself that, although she tried to abort Kelithe, she did not succeed, and therefore should not be subject to the same judgment.  In what ways do you see the women of this novel trying to overcome, forget, or overshadow their own infanticidal desires with their harsh criticism of Kelithe?

9.      On page 163, Kelithe decides that she could never tell Timothy that something would happen “soon” because “soon” spelled backwards is “noos(e).” Discuss the ways that endless waiting and anticipation squelches the dreams of the characters in their story.  To what extent are their actions simply a result of the frustrations that they feel?

10.  There is the sense that Sonya’s ultimate abandonment of Kelithe comes when she joins the collective grief of Standfast in mourning the death of her grandson—and also when she fails to believe that her daughter is innocent of the crime of which she is accused.  How and why does Sonya instinctively join them, rather than her daughter, in her grief? Why does she feel that the town somehow needs her to side with them in their judgment of Kelithe and why does she ultimately decide to betray her own fresh and blood?

11.  The author does an interesting them when she switches points of view at different times in the novel.  How does hearing this story told by different characters, who have different agendas, different opinions and different ways of seeing the world, affect your ability to ever truly understand what really happened that day by the river?   Do you think that the idea of subjectivity is a concept with which the author plays? How would this story have been different had it been told by one characters, or if it were told in third-person omniscient?

12.  Did you come away from this story with a firm sense of whether or not Kelithe let Timothy die? What do you think her mother or her grandmother thinks?  To have an understating of this novel, is it necessary to know? How about the last chapter?  Did it clear anything up for you, or create more questions?

13.  The imagery of the final scene at the river is amazingly powerful and suggests that Kelithe finds a kind of peace that had previously eluded her.  What is it about the river that allows her to find this peace?  Discuss the river as a symbol of the power and the fury of motherhood.  How does the water imagery in the novel shed light on the creative and destructive forces of women, which is such a central theme?  

The New York Times Book Review A graceful, absorbing first novel.

Booklist A powerful look at guilt, betrayal, stunted ambition, and tortured maternal instincts.

Jewell Parker Rhodes Author of Douglass' Women A lovely and lyrical debut, filled with insight and honesty. Donna Hemans is a splendid writer.