The insolence, decadence, and cruelty of some in the novel will certainly hook my 8th grade students: the wealthy built themselves a playground (man-made lake) high in the mountains above several blue-collar towns...the damn gives way...and the wealthy gape down as floods ravage the downtrodden. Oops. How utterly indecent...just when I was about to pour another glass of port.
Ok, back to being fair.
The true hook of the book for any English teacher is how it is written: a multiple point-of-view story in free verse. The reader is shifted back and forth through the poems/perspectives of five characters. Their lives intersect against the backdrop of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 in Pennsylvania. For a debut novel, this leaves me impressed. It will be very easy for me to demonstrate the merits of this book and style to my students. Pulling excerpts out for class discussion will lead to a worthwhile exchange of ideas on the merits of writing in third person, in multiple points of view, and in taking risks with style and voice. Jame Richards found a unique voice and perspective to tell a story which has been shared by a master storyteller already, David McCullough.
I include an excerpt here of the wealthy father (new wealth) who casts his teenage daughter Celestina out of the family (the second he has done that too). After the flood, he realizes his daughter may be in the towns below...those struck by the flood. He begins his long and treacherous climb down the mountain through mud and splintered trees to reclaim his daughter:
I bid the girl and her parents goodbyeFor as unnerving as free verse can be to write (Robert Frost said that free verse was like playing tennis without a net.), I can't imagine this story told any other way. It all feels right and I do not miss the traditional format of the novel.
and resume slow progress
down the river valley.
I arrive in the borough of East Conemaugh,
a larger town,
home of the train yard.
Everyone speaks with gratitude
of an engine driver
who sounded the alarm
with his whistle tied down.
His house is one of a hundred or so lost.
His locomotive is among hundreds
of train cars scattered about
or carried off by the flood
as it picked up speed
And toward Celestina.
One of the first conversations I want to have with my students is centered around my first question for Jame Richards-- Whose novel is this? The format of the story wants it to be Celestina's, but I want to see if my 8th graders can argue the fact that the novel actually belongs to the father. He experiences the greatest change. He is the one who was boxed into a moral dilemma...and for him there seemingly is no escape. If he accepts that his older daughter is pregnant before she is married and his younger daughter is in love with a poor, black servant then all of his new wealth and contacts in the world ostensibly disappear.
Is the fact that her father forbids her marrying the servant enough to make Celestina the heroine of the novel? Is it enough that she chooses to leave her family to be with the man she loves rather than the one her father chose for her? It wasn't enough to make Hermia the heroine in A Midsummer Night's Dream (nor Egeus for that matter), but my argument here is...the story in question, Three Rivers Rising, belongs to the father Whitcomb.
Furthermore, consider the naming of the heroine Celestina as a not so subtle nod towards the Spanish La Celestina by de Rojas. La Celestina is written in series of dialogues which almost make it a cross between a play and a novel. When I was studying theater and film at Temple University I had a professor who taught it as a play. In the case of Three Rivers Rising, did I mistake dialogue for free verse? I don't think so, but now as I skim the book it is definitely dialogue as well as free verse. I didn't catch the connection to La Celestina right away...I'm going to have to pull it off the shelf, clear the dust, and look for some additional connections.
Regardless, there is enough to chew on here beyond plot. I do recommend that you keep this book in your classroom. Young adults will be drawn to the story and you may also find some good cause for discussion with it. Enjoy!