|A Pivotal Time
The Patience of Rivers by Joseph Freda
reviewed by John Rowen
The Patience of Rivers is a highly readable novel that is appealing on many levels.
Joseph Freda brings the people and landscape of the Upper Delaware Valley to life. Three paragraphs into the story, set in the summer of 1969, Freda introduces Nick Lauria, his main character. Nick, who has just turned 18, appears at the door of his mother's barn. From here, he sees the Delaware River "shimmering between" the Catskills and Poconos, "drawing a sparkling line through layer after layer of green hills fading to deep aqua."
This is Freda's second novel; his first, Suburban Guerrillas, was set in New Hampshire. He lives in Sullivan County and is a fourth-generation Catskills' resident. Although he did not realize it at the time, Freda was researching this book as a teenager, when he was immersed in Woodstock Summer. But this book goes beyond capable descriptions of landscape or local history. It is part family epic, part coming-of-age saga, and part thriller. It is a visual novel, which could inspire a movie. By setting the book in 1969, he considers the effect of Woodstock and the Vietnam War on baby boomers in general and the Catskills in particular.
Nick is the son of Francis and Kit Lauria. His best friend, Charlie Miles, is the son of Ted Miles, the Laurias' business partner in a campsite on the Delaware River, next to the village of Delaware Ford. Freda calls the fictional Delaware Ford a "shadow town" one that reflects the life that goes on in actual towns, without the constraints of the history of a specific place.
The book opens in June, as Nick and Charlie are graduating from high school. They expect to spend the summer hanging out with friends, working at the campsite, and training for a big Labor Day canoe race. Francis and Kit expect a fourth summer of crowded hospitality at the campsite. With Ted's contracting connections and flair for promotion and their own attention to detail, the campsite has become "a green and groomed garden spot on the Delaware." However, tensions grow between Ted, Francis and Kit. Ted disappears for weeks at a time. He makes expensive purchases and cash starts disappearing. Francis and Kit, who are having marital troubles, realize that the smooth-talking salesman has a dark side.
The outside world brings new challenges. Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Nick and Charlie register for the draft, and Delaware Ford kids are going to Vietnam. Some return physically and mentally changed; and Nick worries about his friend Felix Gustave, who is deep in Vietnam's back country.
After school ends, Nick, Charlie, and the gorgeous, free-spirited Van Vooren sisters learn that the Town of Wallkill has banned a proposed rock concert. With growing delight, they watch as promoters bring Woodstock to Bethel, eight miles from the campsite. During Woodstock, the river nearly floods the campsite. Then it is flooded by an overflow of people using it as a base for attending the concerts. The festival helps Nick unmask a crucial part of Ted's hidden life and to make an important discovery about his romantic life. Woodstock inspires Charlie to break with his materialistic family.
At summer's end, as Nick and Charlie prepare for the canoe race, they, and the book's other characters, rush towards the book's satisfying, surprising end, like out-of-control canoes heading for the ledges of Skinners Falls.
Freda fully develops characters with quick, confident writing. He resists the temptation to create good and evil cardboard cutouts; he generally respects characters, even frustrating and troublesome Ted. With careful research, Freda brings fictional Delaware Ford to life. He will likely inspire people to drive through the valley looking for the campsite, Maxine's Luncheonette, or the raucous parties at the bar in the Wild Turkey.
Freda uses vignettes to advance the story and develop characters. Some vignettes are sad, particularly those describing abusive parents or the tyranny of the small-town rich; others are funny. He uses foolish tourist behavior to increase the story's authenticity and provide comic relief. I particularly liked his account of what happens when two city residents put a big motorboat on the quiet water by the campsite.
There are appealing details about country life throughout. Freda describes how to take care of horses, how to build a racing canoe and effectively paddle it, how to catch eels and to harvest sweet corn. He describes great fishing and hiking. With its strong characters, vivid description of landscape, young romance, and the suspense of Ted's business deals, The Patience of Rivers sets a new standard for high-quality Catskills fiction.
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