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River Woman

A Novel

About The Book

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.


Chapter One: The Drowning

Women around me were screaming, running, and somebody was shouting, trying to get my attention. They'd left their clothes upon the rocks where they were beating out the yellow stains that their husbands' sweat had left in the armpits of the shirts. Soapsuds were still on their arms.

I could hear the pitter-patter of their feet on the gravel that had been washed over thousands of times by the river, or covered completely when heavy rains swelled the river and made it impossible for us women to gather there.

I saw when Pam hiked her skirt above her thick, scarred knees and kicked off her broken-down sneakers, so she could run faster. The other woman, whose baby always had one hand in her mouth and the other wrapped in her mama's skirt, violently shook the infant's hands away. I saw Carol's breasts swinging from side to side underneath her red T-shirt. Her dark nipples protruded because the water from washing had flattened her T-shirt against her body. I wondered if her breasts didn't hurt from flapping like that against her stomach.

It wasn't till I saw Pam grab the small body in the blue shirt, which had a hole in the front, that I noticed my baby was missing from under the tree where I had left him sleeping.

"Mi baby, mi baby! Oh, mi God, mi baby!" I cried, pushing my way between the women who were pulling my boy's body out of the water. "Timothy, Timothy."

The women, all mothers themselves and much older than I was, wouldn't let me near my baby's soft body, which they had placed on the sand. Pam, although I'm sure she'd never done anything like this before, pressed her mouth, her chapped lips, against my baby's pink lips and tried to force some of her air into his lungs. But his little three-year-old body didn't move, couldn't move. Another woman tried to press his chest and force his heart to beat again.

"Hol' 'im upside down and let the water out," someone I couldn't see shouted from behind.

My baby, Timothy, who squealed each time I bathed him and didn't play in the water like most babies like to do, had awakened, left the shade tree where I had put him to sleep, walked to the bank of the river, and drowned in water that was scarcely high enough to wet my skirt.

All river women, and not one of us knew how to save a drowning boy.

They pressed his chest. They blew air into his mouth. Mattie pressed her ear against his chest and said she heard no beats. Someone prayed. Another woman cried.

They looked at me as if I were the river and not the mother. They wouldn't let me touch him. They didn't want to accept that my baby had walked into the water when I wasn't looking and drowned. The river had filled his little lungs with water and smothered the air he was trying to push in and out of his body.

I pushed away the women who were holding me back.

I simply wanted to hold his soft body in my arms one more time before it began to stiffen.

They asked me what I saw, what I heard. They were impatient, like roosters trying to get at hens. Someone said the word "police."

I don't know how it happened. The current wasn't really strong. I hadn't yet lost any sheets, nor any of Timothy's or Grams's clothes. The current wasn't strong.

"You didn't see de bwoy walking to you? You never see him when he fall into de water?" they asked, but I know I didn't see my boy's head bob back up to the top of the water, or hear the gurgle deep in his throat when he tried to say "Mama" and swallowed water instead. I didn't see his arms, in the little blue T-shirt, reach out in the air and then drop back down beneath the surface of the water. Nor did I see the water push his body, facedown, into the soft gray sand on the bank of the river before pulling him out again, and then depositing him again. I didn't see the ripples in the water or the air bubbles his breath formed in the water. I didn't see him drown.

While I was rocking my baby one last time, I heard another woman say she was going to the main road to flag down a car, since the one ambulance wouldn't come out here to pick up the body of a dead boy.

I held him. His body was limp in my arms, not yet rigid but stiffening slightly. There was nothing in his face, nothing in the eyes that somebody had closed, but which I opened slightly with my fingers. The water from his clothes dripped down my arms, streaking and tickling, mingling with the soapy water on my body. I fell to the ground, the sand and the rocks hard against my legs and bottom. Timothy lay in my arms, his head rolled back as if he were just looking at my face, as if he had been looking at me and fallen asleep with my face printed on his mind. My salt water mingled with his river water. I whispered the name "Mommy Kelithe," the way he said it, as if one name was never enough.

I held his body tight, and when the car came, somebody led me to it. I remember Timothy's body, soft and wet against my chest, and the tickling of water from my eyes rolling over my cheeks, falling gently on the wet body of my son.

This is what I would have told my mother, if only she had asked.

Copyright © 2002 by Donna Hemans

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 that had kept the elder folks mired in the past and waiting for their government to hand out a future.  The young women took charge.”  Why does the author call attention to the fact that it is the women who finally act out?  Is this somehow representative of the ways that women, in the fact of absent males, seem to dominate the world of this novel?  How do you account for the fact that women, who usually maintain roles as creators, are responsible for so much destruction in this story? 

5.      There is the sense that it takes time, patience, and caring to be a good mother, a luxury that neither Sonya nor Kelithe had -- seeing as how neither of them were old enough to grow into that.  As such, do you think there are mitigating circumstances that may help explain the way that they neglected or abandoned their children?  To what extent do you judge the women for their actions?

6.      In the world of Standfast the past never really goes away.  Memories of wrongs, both on a personal level and a public level, affect the people of the town deeply, making it impossible for them to ever more on or to ever break free from the bitterness that holds them.  And it is only in the ultimate action of destruction and rebellion that the people seem somehow freed from their past.  Are there parallels between the destruction of the bridge and the way that Kelithe allegedly lets her son die? How might these parallels demonstrate the disappointment over lost potential and resentment that plague the people of Standfast?  If the burning of the bridge was a symbolic break from the past for the townsfolk, how should we view Timothy’s death?

7.      The women of Standfast are outraged that Kelithe, at least in their eyes, let her son die – so much so that his death becomes an obsession for the townsfolk, and takes on a life of its own.  Why is it that they see the boy’s death as a personal affront, even though they are not family?   How might the following quote from page 151 shed light on this question? “It was as if each woman brought her painful past, as if by telling her story she was being healed.” In what way do the women of Standfast need to be healed?

8.      It seems that Kelithe affirms for the women of Standfast their visions of themselves as good mother.  No matter how poorly they may have treated their children, they never let them die.  Even Sonya, Kelithe’s own mother, often compares her sins with her daughter’s, reassuring herself that, although she tried to abort Kelithe, she did not succeed, and therefore should not be subject to the same judgment.  In what ways do you see the women of this novel trying to overcome, forget, or overshadow their own infanticidal desires with their harsh criticism of Kelithe?

9.      On page 163, Kelithe decides that she could never tell Timothy that something would happen “soon” because “soon” spelled backwards is “noos(e).” Discuss the ways that endless waiting and anticipation squelches the dreams of the characters in their story.  To what extent are their actions simply a result of the frustrations that they feel?

10.  There is the sense that Sonya’s ultimate abandonment of Kelithe comes when she joins the collective grief of Standfast in mourning the death of her grandson—and also when she fails to believe that her daughter is innocent of the crime of which she is accused.  How and why does Sonya instinctively join them, rather than her daughter, in her grief? Why does she feel that the town somehow needs her to side with them in their judgment of Kelithe and why does she ultimately decide to betray her own fresh and blood?

11.  The author does an interesting them when she switches points of view at different times in the novel.  How does hearing this story told by different characters, who have different agendas, different opinions and different ways of seeing the world, affect your ability to ever truly understand what really happened that day by the river?   Do you think that the idea of subjectivity is a concept with which the author plays? How would this story have been different had it been told by one characters, or if it were told in third-person omniscient?

12.  Did you come away from this story with a firm sense of whether or not Kelithe let Timothy die? What do you think her mother or her grandmother thinks?  To have an understating of this novel, is it necessary to know? How about the last chapter?  Did it clear anything up for you, or create more questions?

13.  The imagery of the final scene at the river is amazingly powerful and suggests that Kelithe finds a kind of peace that had previously eluded her.  What is it about the river that allows her to find this peace?  Discuss the river as a symbol of the power and the fury of motherhood.  How does the water imagery in the novel shed light on the creative and destructive forces of women, which is such a central theme?  

About The Author

Photo Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (January 1, 2003)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743410403

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Raves and Reviews

The New York Times Book Review A graceful, absorbing first novel.

Booklist A powerful look at guilt, betrayal, stunted ambition, and tortured maternal instincts.

Jewell Parker Rhodes Author of Douglass' Women A lovely and lyrical debut, filled with insight and honesty. Donna Hemans is a splendid writer.

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