Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers (January, 2006)
The first indication to me that Athol Dickson’s newest book,
River Rising, would be something special, was his last book.
The Gospel According to Moses is based on Dickson’s five year study of the Torah at a Reformed Jewish temple. It examines what he discovered about the Bible, Christianity, Judaism, faith, and friendship. It’s not often that authors – not even Christian ones – devote so much time to an in-depth exploration of their theological and historical roots. Let me confess up front, this piqued my interest in his new novel from the get-go.
River Rising is not a theological piece, per se. It is a historical thriller set in the Louisiana swamplands, in an isolated stilt town named Pilotville. But it is Dickson’s grasp of human nature, its longings and distortions, and his devotion to spiritual matters that impregnates the narrative.
The year is 1927 when the Reverend Hale Poser, raised in New Orleans, arrives in the mysterious backwater town in search of his past. Although the locals are suspicious of the newcomer, he eventually gets a job working as a janitor at the Negro Infirmary and begins attending the African Assembly of God church. After several seemingly mystical acts, rumors begin surfacing that Poser is no ordinary man, but a miracle worker.
At first glance, Pilotville appears to be a “sanctuary from racism” where blacks and whites live together in harmony. However, after a baby is kidnapped and the Reverend joins the search, the facade collapses. Not only does the city have a long history of unsolved baby-abductions, Poser’s investigations lead him deeper into the swamplands and the startling discovery of a more sinister cover-up.
The bayou backwaters serve as vivid backdrop to the unfolding mystery. I was reminded of Marlow, the introspective sailor and his journeys up the Congo in Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness. As Hale Poser drifts further back into the belly of the swampland, it is clear his search is for more than just a missing child. It is a journey upriver, into America’s dark past and the depths of human pain—a search for grace and redemption.
Along the way, Dickson’s protagonist struggles with himself and his beliefs, bringing us into contact with hypocrites and haters on both sides of t he aisle. The author uses these to explore a variety of complex issues such as religious faith and racial equality. I found this book timely in its characterization of racial tension and injustice, and appreciated the absence of PC-induced guilt and simplistic answers, as well as the practical outworking of grace as the primary path of reconciliation.
Clearly, Dickson’s interests in theological reflection lace the tale and provide a redemptive scaffold for the dramatic unfolding. But throughout, it is Hale Poser, a simple, gracious man, that leads us through the swamps of injustice and unbelief, bridging the world that is, with the world as it should be.
River Rising is a memorable story, very well-written and deftly-paced. The culture, language and customs of the old south create a haunting atmosphere and imagery sure to stay with the reader. In an age of shallow, mediocre fiction, I found this a refreshing read—a book that will be in many top ten lists at years’ end and referenced for years to come. Highly recommended.