Many books and movies convey the message that stories can be powerful tools to promote healing and build identity. This is true. But like any powerful element, from rain to fire to medicine, it is also true that stories can wreak havoc and even destruction in the hands of untrained practitioners. This fundamental truth is a central theme of THE RIVERMAN, a gripping, often unnerving novel for upper middle grades from Aaron Starmer. It is quite possibly the best book I will read this year. It’s certainly the most thought-provoking so far.
At the tender age of two, Alistair Cleary saw something that his young mind understood as benign, but it wasn’t. Now, ten years later, Alistair is trying to make sense of his world in the way that twelve-year-olds are starting to do. Is his video-game-obsessed childhood friend, Charlie, really his best friend? Is Charlie’s older brother Kyle as bad an influence as everyone thinks he is? Are Kyle and Alistair somehow responsible for the horrible thing that happens to Charlie? What happened to cause the rift between Alistair’s family and Fiona Loomis’s, back when Alistair and Fiona were only six years old? And what is Fiona’s uncle really doing, living in their house?
Fiona takes the front seat in Alistair’s thoughts when she invites him to write her biography. Fiona’s story consists almost entirely of elaborate tales of Aquavania, the mythical land where stories are born. By her own telling, Fiona disappears into Aquavania for years at a time while mere moments pass in the Solid World. Alistair knows that’s impossible, but what is Fiona’s true story? Who is the Riverman, the mysterious soul-sucking villain of Aquavania? Fiona has chosen Alistair to write her story because she “needs a witness with an imagination.” Alistair considers the strangeness of her story along with rumors about her family, and comes up with his own story about the truth of Fiona’s life. As he grows to care for Fiona, to accept in his own mind and heart that she is his first girlfriend, he fears for her. The story he’s imagined to explain the impossible story she is telling leads him to—well, I won’t tell you. You need to read the book. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, neither Fiona nor Alistair understand the power that stories have, nor how to control that power—or even that such power needs to be handled responsibly. Of course they don’t. They’re twelve. It’s an age when the actions we take begin to have real consequences, but adults aren’t yet ready to tell us what’s really going on. And sometimes, like Alistair, we’re reluctant to ask.
None of this tells you about the lyrical language; the pithy descriptions of setting and feeling that convey Alistair’s view of the world at a given moment; the insights that speak not only to young readers but to readers of any age and especially to writers; or the shocking turns of events throughout the book, which occur at perfectly-paced intervals. MANY important questions remain unanswered at the end of the book, and quite deliberately so. I believe that Starmer’s purpose in leaving so much unresolved is to compel readers to “write” their own ending—to do exactly as the last words of the book command: to pretend, to believe that anything is possible.
I became aware of THE RIVERMAN during the New England SCBWI conference panel “The Blurry Space of Thirteen.” Starmer, with fellow panelists Laurel Snyder and Kate Milford, discussed the challenges of getting books published for the in-between age of 12 to 14. The issue is one of shelving: Bookstores prefer protagonists to be at the upper end of childhood—ages 11 or 12 at most—or to be solidly teenagers, perhaps 14 but more desirably 16. There are several reasons for this preference which boil down to “kids like to “read up” age-wise, so librarians prefer not to have books that grade-schoolers shouldn’t read, and bookstores aren’t sure where to shelve books whose protagonists are too young for high schoolers to want to read.” THE RIVERMAN reminds me of Edward Bloor’s TANGERINE, in that the story is definitely not for grade school, and definitely not set in high school. Sixth grade and up. Maybe fifth. I recall TANGERINE carrying a warning label about disturbing situations in the Scholastic Book Club newsletter. Perhaps THE RIVERMAN should, too. That way, the book can reach the readers who are ready for it, without disturbing those who aren’t.