A novel view of history
Joseph Freda's critically acclaimed novel "The Patience of Rivers" (Norton, $24.95) is set in the "shimmering" Upper Delaware Valley of Sullivan County. The Vietnam War is raging, astronauts land on the moon, and Woodstock is about to explode. Freda calls it "the Summer of the Perpetual Buzz. It felt like all the rules had been suspended."
The coming-of-age novel centers on 18-year-old Nick Lauria, who works at the family campground on the Delaware and is getting ready to go to college. Readers meet his best friend Charlie Miles, a girl he falls in love with, his parents and grandparents, the duplicitous father of his best friend, and a classmate fighting in Vietnam.
The novel is rich in details and locations. The Times Herald-Record even gets a mention, as Charlie tells his friends that the Record headline says, "Wallkill to get rock fete."
"'Rock feet?'" Bear Brown asked.
"'A rock festival, man. Listen to this: 'Operators of a three-day rock and jazz festival expect to draw a crowd of twenty thousand in August to the town of Wallkill.'"
Wallkill town fathers vetoed the festival, so it moved to Sullivan County and the rest is history.
Along the Delaware, a Story Rises
Middletown Times Herald-Record, April 3, 2003
His book may be called "The Patience of Rivers," but a different kind of water was pounding Joseph Freda's austere writing room in Kenoza Lake. The rain seemed to be spitting on the two windows of the third-floor upper room of the old farmhouse where Freda writes. And writes and writes.
On a large desk, there are neat stacks, hundreds of pages of earlier drafts of his novel: 250 pages about the history of the town and backgrounds of his characters. Then there's another 250 pages describing these characters in the present. All written longhand with a red mechanical pencil, which never leaves this room.
"I confess to this superstition," he said. "I have to write with that pencil."
Working with his editor, Carol Houck Smith, he "flailed the excess words" out of the 351-page novel. Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Russo says Freda "is a remarkably gifted storyteller," adding that the novel "reads like vivid testimony to a particular time, to a special place in the author's heart. It sent me back to that special place in my own."
National Book Award-winning author Alice McDermott calls it "a brilliant novel... For anyone who came of age in the late Sixties, this feels like the novel we've been waiting for, an unforgettable work of fiction" that "sounds like truth."
Freda is modest about his achievement. "By the time I came to write this novel, I knew my characters well," he said with a smile.
Freda knows the nearby section of the Delaware River intimately. That knowledge isn't just from the detailed maps on the wall, but from years of walking, swimming, fishing, and canoeing the river. "I'm so bonded to the river," he said. "It's a spiritual thing."
In the corner are the medals and trophies he's won through the years in canoe regattas on the Delaware. In the garage is the racing canoe made for him by racing champion Al Camp. It has sleek lines, cuts through the water, and weighs less than 25 pounds.
To stay in shape, the 51-year-old Freda works out on a rowing machine. His roots are in Callicoon. His great-grandfather, a stone worker, came from Italy to help build the St. Joseph's Seminary. His grandfather was the principal of the Jeffersonville School. His father, Matthew Joseph Freda, was a career Air Force pilot who flew in three wars. At 83, he's a prominent Callicoon real estate figure. Freda dedicated the novel to his father and his mother, Betty Mae Robbins Freda.
An Air Force brat, Freda grew up on bases around the world, "but we always came back to Callicoon."
When he was 18 the same age as Nick Lauria, the novel's narrator Freda came back home. He went to Woodstock just before the big doings, and just after. But he worked at a Delaware River campground and canoe rental place during the Woodstock Festival.
"I wanted to be a writer since high school," he said. "I had one of those great teachers who encouraged me to write. He also got me on the design path."
Freda was editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, and while stationed in Okinawa he was able to use both gifts. Freda's day job is as a designer creating Web sites eight hours a day. He spends another four hours creating stories.
And keeping his eyes and heart open.
"I'm open all the time," he said. "As a fiction writer, you observe everything, then you create characters that come to life as real people."
When he strikes gold, when something that comes out is so true, so rich in meaning, "it's like an electric jolt in my pencil," he said.
Here's an example. Nick is talking to Joanie, the first girl he's ever made love to:
"'I want you to trust me,' he said. 'That's the truest thing I know.'
"'Truth is a fact of life,' she said. 'Honesty is what you do with truth.'"
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