River Woman

A Novel

River Woman

As she washes her laundry in the Rio Minho, Kelithe is startled from her daydreams by women's screams. It is not until she sees a small body in the shallow water that she realizes what has happened. Her young son has drowned. The Women of Standfast, Jamaica, whisper that she let Timothy die so that she could seize her chance to join her mother in America. Numb with grief, Kelithe lacks the strength to confront them. She can only wait for the funeral. And for her mother to come stand by her at last.
What really happened at the river? It is a question Kelithe's mother cannot ask and an accusation Kelithe will not answer. And it lies at the heart of this shattering novel of promises kept and broken. In spare prose, Donna Hemans lays bare the human heart, exploring the unyielding bonds joining mother and child and the many facets of truth.
  • Washington Square Press | 
  • 256 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743410403 | 
  • January 2003
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Reading Group Guide

River Woman
Donna Hemans

Questions and Topics For Discussion

1.      The lines between mother and child are often blurred in this story, as many of those who give birth are mere children themselves.  Look at the ways that the women of Standfast mother each other, the town, and their loved ones.  In what ways does this communal sense of mothering shape, alter and create the town?  Are there negative aspects to this type of child rearing? 

2.      Discuss the setting in this novel.  How does the hot, dry stagnant environment work with the plot?  The author peppers her prose with adjectives, many of which are so visceral that they border on disturbing.  In what ways does this exacerbate the high level of emotional intensity of this novel?

3.      Men have a somewhat elusive role in this novel.  They are often presented as peripheral to central scenes and, as characters, react more than act, aid more than lead, and watch more than participate.  Why does this seem to be the case?  Is it simply because the story is told through the point of view of a family of women that men are relegated to the sidelines? Do you see male roles shifting as the novel progresses?

4.      On page 176, during the bridge-burning scene, the narrator states, “The young women shattered the symbol t see more

About the Author

Donna Hemans
Photo Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson