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Book Review: Red Rain 

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It is 1864, and the port town of Rondout bustles. The Hudson is probably the busiest thoroughfare in the whole of the young United States, well situated between New York and Albany, throbbing with commerce and brawling, messy life. The waters of—as Stone Ridge author Bruce Murkoff puts it—“named and unnamed streams” all converge at the great river’s edge, carrying with them the careers and fortunes of the weak and the strong alike. The Civil War is raging, an ominous drumbeat in the near distance.

Will Harp is a gentleman soldier from a military family, back home from the West to try to make sense of his father’s legacy, his unsettling experiences battling native folks, and the changes time has wrought in his Ulster County homeland. Coley Hinds is a teenaged orphan, making his way into the adult world as best he can, torn between good and bad choices. Harry Grieves is a power-hungry landowner with criminal leanings. Jane Blessing is a young woman with troubles: her fiancé is missing in action, and her brother Mickey is employed by Grieves as an enforcer, doing things that tear the siblings apart in ways they could never have imagined. Pearl House is a young woman coming of age in a settlement of free people of color, trying to understand “something about the river town that both repelled and attracted her, much like the taste of sweet onions dug fresh from the earth.”

These people, the events that befall them, and the choices they face form the core of Murkoff’s meticulously researched and beautifully drawn vision of Ulster County life in the middle of the 19th century, when a trip from Kingston to High Falls and back was a long day on horseback, and the Rondout docks teemed with hardened working folk and the harder-still thugs who preyed upon them. It’s not an easy place or time to be a teen orphan, a young woman—or, for that matter, a hardened thug, or a power-hungry landowner. Experiencing Murkoff’s Rondout is like recognizing your kid’s bone structure in a sepia photo of a distant ancestor—so that’s where that nose came from! So that’s how we got here!

And like those named and unnamed streams, individuals and events will converge to shape and change one another. Mastodon bones are discovered, dogs are shot; some people die horribly and others fall in love. Each character’s various dilemmas form a gripping storyline of their own, drawing readers in until we can smell the river, hear the horses neighing and the dockmen shouting, and truly care what becomes of these long-ago lives.

Will Jane’s fiancé make it home from the war? Will young Coley manage to resist the allure of the underworld? Will Pearl be able to keep the foundling child she loves? Can sociopathic Mickey somehow be redeemed? Will Grieves succeed in his dastardly designs? And can Will Harp come to terms with his father’s death and what we moderns would call PTSD, and regain a sense of home? In lesser hands, this could be the stuff of melodrama; in Murkoff’s, it’s very real: life as it was lived. His characters change, lust, and mourn, through everyday realities very different from our own, made vivid by Murkoff’s precise rendering. Red Rain is powerful, lyrical, accessible, and great fun.

  • A review of Bruce Murkoff's "Red Rain."


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