That memory was triggered for me when I read Brian Kiteley’s novel, The River Gods. This book takes place in Northampton, Massachusetts, and creates a fictional history of events that occurred over several hundred years in that one location. The rambling river that divides the town also intersects the stories, then and now. The focus of the story is the characters: wildly diverse yet all living within that same region. They range from Puritan settlers to Native Americans, from famous celebrities to an ordinary family called the Kiteleys. The stories are short, and reveal just a snippet of a moment in time. It isn’t until later that the impact of the individual stories reveal the comprehensive whole of Northampton history.
In one instance, we are introduced to Abigail Slaughter, one of the Puritan settlers who left England to protect their religious freedoms. She describes the region in 1680: “The land was from the beginning a savage antagonist. We pursued an immediate knowledge of the land to make it ours, but the complexity of this environment often killed or maddened us.” That same area, slightly tamed over the passage of a few hundred years, is still mysterious, when, in 1826 Arius Fuller describes an unsolved murder in the same region. Even later, in 1965, a young Brian Kiteley is spying on his grandfather and brother along a verdant river, wondering how he can ever measure up against his agreeable brother.
The idea that one physical place can hold years of history is nothing new. This is why travelers visit the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. It isn’t just the location but the mystery of the unseen people that have lived and breathed at those sites. This is why Kiteley’s book is so intriguing. Imagining the heartache, the conflicts, and the joys of different people set against the same backdrop gives it depth, and makes each story, possibly insignificant on its own, have a keener meaning. Because each story is very short, the pace is very quick. Stopping to note the dates on each entry is essential to getting the big picture of how all these stories combine in Northampton. And since they aren’t told chronologically, but rather jump back and forth in time, there’s a dynamic sense of unity between each character and their place in Northhampton’s stream of time.
Special thanks to Shana Rivers of FC2, the University of Alabama press, for the Review Copy.