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About The Book

For fans of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, “a wonderfully cinematic story” (The Washington Post) set in the post-Katrina South after violent storms have decimated the region.

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

The Gulf Coast has been brought to its knees. Years of catastrophic hurricanes have so punished and depleted the region that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline. Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules—including Cohen, whose wife and unborn child were killed during an evacuation attempt. He buried them on family land and never left.

But after he is ambushed and his home is ransacked, Cohen is forced to flee. On the road north, he is captured by Aggie, a fanatical, snake-handling preacher who has a colony of captives and dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region. Now Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s prisoners across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that poses the greatest threat of all.

Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a Southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.This is the kind of book that lifts you up with its mesmerizing language then pulls you under like a riptide” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Rivers includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Devastating storms have pummeled the already eroded coastline of the American Southeast and the federal government has drawn a boundary, known as the Line, declaring everything below it uninhabitable. This is the setting for Rivers, a land of lawlessness and desperation, where no one has electricity or resources and no one and nothing is safe from looters, vandals, and violent storms that surge without warning, destroying everything in their path. Having lost his wife and unborn child during a mandatory evacuation, Cohen has decided to stay behind, rebuilding his house over and over again as an altar to his deceased family. On his way back from buying supplies one day, Cohen picks up two teenage hitchhikers, a boy and a Creole girl, who attack and nearly kill him, stealing his Jeep , all his supplies and the last precious mementoes he had of his wife and child. His will to survive becomes bound to finding and punishing his attackers, who are themselves prisoners in a commune run by a nefarious preacher with dangerous and twisted plans. He is now faced with the decision to escape the treacherous and sordid existence of life below the Line, including the Creole girl–who he finds himself drawn to–or to try to help them all escape the horrible future that awaits.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. The preface for the novel is a verse from the Bible: “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved. “Acts 27:20” What tone does this set for the opening of the first chapter? Is this tone sustained throughout the novel? If so, how?
2. How is religion dealt with in the novel? Do you see Cohen as a religious person? Mariposa? Aggie? What does the author’s treatment of religion suggest about his own views?
3. The novel offers close-third perspectives from a number of different characters. How do you think this contributes to the overall story? Are there some perspectives that you relate to or trust more than others?
4. How do you think the author’s style of prose affects the story? What are the distinctive features of his prose?
5. Aside from Cohen, we learn very little about the characters appearances and lives outside of the present moment. How do you think this absence of detail affects the way in which readers relate to the characters?
6. How does Smith instill a sense of darkness and fear in the novel? Are there particular passages that stand out as especially apocalyptic? What aspects of life below the Line stand out as the most disturbing to you?
7. In Chapter 8, Cohen leaves a note at his ransacked house that reads “To whom it may concern–he is not dead he is risen.” (p. 79) What do you think he meant by this? What does it help us learn about the characters’ relationship to religion?
8. The weather plays a significant role in the novel, from its part in the characters’ current circumstances to the continued effect it has on their lives. What attitudes are conveyed by the author’s portrayal of the storms and our defenselessness against them?
9. Do good and evil exist in Smith’s world? Is Aggie good or evil? What about the other characters?
10. What were Aggie’s plans for the commune? What kind of person do you think Aggie was before the storms and flooding?
11. Many dystopian novels portray a nightmarish world that turns ordinary humans into murderers and thieves. Could you imagine a world like this? How do you think you would react if you had to endure such circumstances?
12. Mariposa and Evan are introduced as thieves and murderers, but by the end of the book they have transformed. What do you think is their true character? What did meeting Cohen have to do with their transformation? What do you suspect would have become of them had they not met him?
13. What circumstances made it possible for a relationship to form between Cohen and Mariposa? What makes their relationship so poignant? What purpose did their relationship serve, both for the novel and for each of them independently?
14. The novel revolves around each characters’ struggle to survive in spite of the horrifying conditions they must endure. What have Cohen and Mariposa gained by the end of the book? What have they lost?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Smith is a native of Mississippi and was clearly very affected by the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on the Southeastern American coast. How closely did the storms described in Rivers and the government’s treatment of certain areas reflect the actual devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina?
2. Hurricanes continue to strike all over the world, slowly eroding the coastline with their powerful force. Do some research into meteorological predictions to find out how much of the coastline is under threat of hurricane destruction – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a good place to start.
3. The commune formed by Aggie was seen as sinister by all but Ava, yet he was still able to hold them all captive and, in some sense, maintain their allegiance. Learn more about well-known cults of the past and the specific characteristics of a cult and its leader: Can you see some of these traits in Aggie?
4. Have a dystopian movie night! Watch classics, like Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange, or modern adaptations like The Road and Blindness. Read the books first, if you like. Discuss how they compare to Rivers.

About The Author

Photograph by Chris Jenkins

Michael Farris Smith has been awarded the Transatlantic Review Award, Brick Streets Press Short Story Award, Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship, and the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature. He is a graduate of Mississippi State and the Center for Writers at Southern Miss. He lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and two daughters. Rivers is his first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 10, 2013)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451699449

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Raves and Reviews

Best Books of 2013

– Daily Candy

Best Books of 2013

– Book Riot

Top Ten Books of 2013

– The Capital Times

Best Books of 2013

– Hudson Booksellers

“Every once in a while an author comes along who’s in love with art and the written language and image and literary experiment and the complexity of his characters and the great mysteries that lie just on the other side of the physical world, writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. You can add Michael Farris Smith’s name to the list.”

– James Lee Burke, New York Times bestselling author of Creole Belle and The Tin Roof Blowdown

“The lightning whips and the thunder bellows and the rain attacks in the water-stained pages of Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers, a hurricane-force debut novel that will soak you with its beautiful sadness and blow you away with its prescience about the weather-wild world that awaits us.”

– Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, The Wilding, and Refresh, Refresh

“Smith’s incantatory prose . . . propel[s] this apocalyptic narrative at a compelling clip until the very last page.”

– The New York Times Book Review

“[Rivers] is a wonderfully cinematic story—but there are no Hollywood clichés in Smith’s prose or plot. He portrays each character as a human being with a back story and personality: They may make choices that appall or frustrate us, but the characters are rounded and real . . . Smith resorts to no formula, and his ability to keep you guessing about what will happen next adds tension to long stretches of honed prose. He also manages to make 300 pages of relentless rain so real that you’re surprised your fingers aren’t pruney when you look up from this engrossing story.”

– The Washington Post

“Michael Farris Smith’s powerful Rivers is the kind of book that lifts you up with its mesmerizing language then pulls you under like a riptide. . . . It’s not surprising that early reviews have name-dropped Cormac McCarthy’s The Road . . . In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy [and] with meteorologists issuing doomsday scenarios about the fate of coastal cities, Rivers succeeds as both a stunning work of speculative fiction and a grim forecast of a coming national catastrophe.”

– The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Anyone who was on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina will recognize the world portrayed in Rivers . . . The novel builds from this tense, atmospheric beginning to a harrowing conclusion, the kind of book that will soak into you like a relentless downpour. Smith’s storm-swept prose and desolate setting will remind readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but there is something in Cohen that reminds us of a Larry Brown protagonist, burned out yet determined, and something especially in his passage through the fugitive land that recalls TV’s ‘The Walking Dead’. Events like Katrina and 9/11 stoked the country’s imagination for survivalist stories like Rivers, so it seems fitting that this promising Mississippi writer has come back to the source and paid homage, in his Southern Gothic way, to the region’s bull-headed will to keep going.”

– The Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi)

"While there are obvious similarities to Cormac McCarthy, Smith most puts me in mind of his fellow Mississippian Larry Brown. They share the same smooth-worn grace running toward minimalism and offhand masculine power."

– Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

“The momentum of this book is propulsive. . . . Most impressive of all is the fact that Farris Smith managed to capture my attention with an opening line—and, for that matter, an opening passage, and an opening chapter—about the weather.”

– The Paris Review

“[A] powerfully written apocalyptic tale. . . . While Rivers is already inviting inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Smith’s canvas is broader and the story even more riveting.”

– Booklist

“Smith’s vision of a post-apocalyptic society left behind by civilization is expertly executed. This world is chilling—all the more so for its believability—and it is peopled by compelling, fully realized characters, some of whom only exist in the form of ghosts. In contrast to this bleak world, Smith’s prose is lush, descriptive and even beautiful. A compelling plot, fuelled by a mounting sense of tension and hope in the face of increasing hopelessness, will keep readers engrossed to the very end.”

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Smith’s passion for the South is palpable, and the native Mississippian writes as if in a part homage, part plea to save the splendor of his home state. With stunning prose and nearly perfect pacing, Rivers is an uncommonly good debut, forcing the reader to consider not only the consequences of climate change but also ponder the limits of the human spirit.”

– Summerset Review

"Rivers is a novel that forces the reader to face terrifying possibilities and haunts long after the last page. Smith captures the essence of humanity in an almost post-apocalyptic world and his writing earns him a well-deserved place next to greats like William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy."

– DeSoto Magazine

“What if the devastation of Hurricane Katrina were not a one-time anomaly of ferocious weather, a crumbling infrastructure and an ineffective, incompetent national recovery response, but the first of endless waves of destructive coastal weather? What if the impact of climate change were not centuries away, but right now? . . . The satisfaction of Rivers comes from Smith's finesse in creating a realistic thriller within the fiction genre of cataclysm. His scenes are as real as 24-hour Weather Channel videos.”


“A post-apocalyptic world a la The Road by Cormac McCarthy (indeed, Smith's prose style has some of the same hard-muscled, grim texture of McCarthy's words).”—

– The Quivering Pen

“A story so powerful, I thought it was going to ignite every time I picked the damn thing up. Rivers will be compared to some of the greatest stories ever written by writers of generations past and present, but what can’t be compared is the power and skill that lie within its pages. The words will shear your eyes and brand your mind, and you’ll be scarred by what you’ve read for days, weeks, even months after. This is an important book. Pick it up—I bet you won’t be able to put it down.”

– Frank Bill, author of Donnybrook and Crimes in Southern Indiana

“Take an environmental apocalypse, blow in the cadences of Ernest Hemingway and the vision of Cormac McCarthy, sweeten it with humanity, add a Southern twang, and you might get something close to Rivers. Michael Farris Smith’s debut novel is not only a great read; it’s a significant one.”

– Anne Korkeakivi, author of An Unexpected Guest

“This novel’s greatest strength is in Smith’s deep understanding of the traditions from which his inspiration springs and his ability to transform familiar tropes into something new. Like most good literature, Rivers uses these traditions and conventions in new ways that carve out new spaces and new possibilities.”

– The Steel Toe Review

“Fiction writers often tangle with how to write about the issues shaping the world we live in—war, poverty, oppression—while still preserving the creative energy that should propel a good story forward. How do we manage to write the world we live in while writing the worlds of our imaginations? In his debut novel, Rivers, Michael Farris Smith answers that question with confidence, writing about the effects of global warming while also offering a story that is unmistakably his own. . . . Rivers is a captivating novel, and its ravaged landscape is particularly believable. Farris Smith is meticulous in detailing the reshaped Gulf Coast region, the abandoned husks of buildings, and what happens to both man and nature when a world becomes untamed. . . . Richly written and engaging.”

– Bookforum

“Skillfully depicted . . . . Rivers is a chillingly realistic read and a surreal glimpse of one possible future.”

– San Francisco Book Review

“When reading Michael Farris Smith’s debut novel, Rivers, it’s natural to see the influence that his literary predecessors, masters of prose and tone, have had on Smith’s work. No influence is more apparent than that of Cormac McCarthy. In Smith’s chilling novel . . . the author is sparse with language, poignant with details and the narrative teeters between physical and abstract worlds. . . . Smith may be following the road set by McCarthy, but Rivers differentiates itself by offering a hopeful and nostalgic tenderness in a story of endurance that is startlingly relevant to our time.”

– storySouth

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