"When You Live by a River" by Mermer Blakeslee


Open the spigot on the water faucet over any sink on Manhattan’s Park Avenue or in Harlem or The Bronx and clear, unfiltered water from Upstate New York will come pouring out.  Reservoirs in the Catskills provide parts of the USA’s biggest city with reputedly the finest water supply on Earth.  City folks with little knowledge of the Upstate regions still recognize names like Ashokan and Cannonsville, reservoirs that trickle 15 billion gallons of water a day to Gotham, the sites under constant surveillance by a special branch of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection Police and now further protected by political power against incursion by gas drilling.

To build these reservoirs many miles of farmland had to be sacrificed and personal lives altered  That is some of the background for Mermer Blakeslee’s new novel “When You Live By a River”, which opens in 1931 just as the city was planning to expand its water supply.  The farmers and those who dwell along the East Branch of the Delaware are “not on edge, but on watch”.

It was turning cold, but Digger could still smell the river.  It hadn’t frozen yet and it was low, down to the mudflats.  As a boy, when the weater dropped this low he’d roll his wagon down to the mud and spend a morning getting it stuck and pulling it out like he was three or four men.  A few times the wheels sunk in so deep, he had to run to the barn and get a shovel.  It never did turn to work, though — in that silt, a shovel seemed to dig of its own accord.  The river smell always brought him some relief.  As if his soul, like the East Branch, reached all the way up to the headwaters in Grand Gorge, and downriver too, through Peaceful Valley and into Shinhopple until just west of Fish’s Eddy, where it gave itself to the Delaware.  There, at the junction, he seemed to end.    –from “When You Live by a River”

The river may run past their farmland, but for the Benton family it only accompanies a flow of life.  This is the story of Leenie, a bright fifteen year old who “wasn’t cut out to be a farm girl”.  Her family saw a good teacher in her and thought she should go on to college.  Her uncle’s wife, Addie, died giving birth to a baby girl and Leenie is assigned the task of caring for and nursing the child, which also meant caring for Uncle Willis — known to all as “Digger”.  He has buried Addie beneath a plain stone by the riverbank.  As a reward for raising the child Leenie’s college expenses will be paid by Digger and other family members and friends.  Leenie goes to Vassar, earns a degree, visits back home as the waters start to rise.  The author’s sense of setting and her feeling for her characters is impeccable.  An excerpt from “When  You Live by a River” won the 2006 Narrative Prize from Narrative Magazine.

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