This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 September 2016.
RIVERINE, A MEMOIR FROM ANYWHERE BUT HERE, Angela Palm, Graywolf Press, 222 pp.
Though the reader does not know it until much later, Angela Palm’s memoir is neatly summarized in her dedication: “To Corey, who was there, and Mike, who is here.” Certainly, any memoir starts with “there” and works its way to “here”; the unexpected dimension in Riverine is the forceful presence of what might have been.
Much of Palm’s memoir reads like a novel. Her writing is strong, quiet, and richly observed, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re reading a first-person fictional narrative. In fiction, though, we demand a chain of evidence, a rational explanation of cause and effect, some defensible basis for our willing suspension of disbelief. What makes truth stranger than fiction is that truth — life — simply happens, with no particular rhyme or reason, no discernable explanation of why, no matter how much we try to divine one.
Palm grew up in the in-between: between towns in an empty spot on the map; between water and dependably dry land; between privileged suburbia and poor rural shacks. Living on the banks of Illinois’ Kankakee River as her family did — in fact, in the middle of its natural course, the river having been artificially straightened in the 1800s — meant that floodwaters, sandbags, and a regular battle between man and nature were woven into the fabric of her childhood.
Looming larger than the river was the presence of her neighbor, Corey, whose bedroom faced hers and whose movements she tracked from her earliest memories, as one who has found her north star. Corey, four years older, was her babysitter, her protector, her best friend, and the object of her longing.
Palm is expert at making us feel the claustrophobia of her childhood, the desperate sense of being trapped in an existence that could not possibly be her own, with people who seemed wholly foreign to her. But while her family circumstances were strained both economically and emotionally, she had a level of stability that Corey never did.
“This is what I remember him being told: get out, shut up, go away, your sister is dead, your father is a lie. Growing children, like transplanting spliced plants, is a delicate endeavor.” Even so, he was kind-hearted and generous to both Palm and her little brother, Marcus, even after Corey began doing stints in reform school and juvenile hall — punished for the types of infractions that richer, better-connected teen boys skate past with few consequences. The one instance in which Palm and Corey pursue an intimate encounter, he respects her “no” immediately, admitting he had promised her father to leave her alone.
Corey slips further away from Palm, but the gut-punch comes from the crime he commits at age 19 that puts him in prison for life. Finding a path through to a life other than the one Palm spends years imagining is a long journey that takes her into and out of different jobs, hobbies, and scholarly pursuits, like criminal justice studies and a brush with law school.
Mike, the Mike of the dedication, turns out to be the antidote to a long string of stand-in boyfriends, and it’s clear that he is — finally, after Corey — someone who fits her. Palm’s acknowledgement of herself as a writer comes late, after the birth of her second child and a close-your-eyes-and-jump move to Vermont. With the support of Mike, she finally declares with confidence, “I’m a writer!” after a funny/fraught encounter with a Canadian customs agent.
Riverine is an effort for Palm to make sense of her past, to find answers to questions that have haunted her, like why her mother understands her so little, and why she could not douse the torch she carried for a boy she’d known forever.
Palm was 15 when Corey was sent to prison for life, and 31 when she finally goes to see him there. That visit helps the author, and now her readers, find at least a few answers, but not without opening the painful contemplation of “if only.”
Winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Riverine is an impressive debut — intelligent, tender, forthright, insightful. It may have taken teasing to get her to own the title (“My husband put on my sunglasses and pretended to toss his hair. ‘Uh, I’m a writer? Um…’”), but this is one writer we’ll be eager to hear from again.