‘The River Between Us’: A story of survival and transformation

‘The River Between Us’: A story of survival and transformation

The Kansas City Star

Edward M. Eveld

It’s the eve of the Civil War in Richard Peck’s novel “The River Between Us,” and the country is rearranging itself for the coming conflict.

A prelude to the convulsion plays even in the tiny river-landing town of Grand Tower, Ill. That’s where 15-year-old Tilly Pruitt notices that the boys her age are taking sides and itching to fight, including her twin brother, Noah.

A riverboat heading north stops in their town, likely the last one on the Mississippi before the war, and deposits the elaborately adorned Delphine Duval and her mysterious companion, Calinda.

Peck’s book, a challenging historical novel for young adult readers, is the current selection of the FYI Book Club.

The Pruitt family takes in the newcomers, although it is barely surviving a hardscrabble life with no help from an absent father. From there the tale provides portals into multiracial politics and culture, the brutal reach of war and the confluence of family secrets and identity.

The multiple-award-winning Peck has written dozens of books for young readers. He will visit Kansas City May 3 for a Kansas City Public Library event with several other noted authors.

Here are edited excerpts of our conversation with Peck.

 Q. Why a Civil War story?

A. It’s a story that found me. I was trolling for whatever I might find in New Orleans historical museums, and I began to read about the real estate of the French Quarter. I learned that a majority of it before the Civil War was owned by women of mixed race who were called quadroons. They were the mistresses of white men, given homes and livings, and they were very fashionable and proud. They knew that if the South lost the war, they would lose their status. So they sent their daughters away. Those who were light enough to “pass” were sent north.

And you wondered what happened to them.

Yes, I chose a girl who could pass for white, particularly if she were among unsophisticated people who wouldn’t know. The story became about a girl who has to reinvent herself in an “alien” country. And, of course, it’s a love story. When she comes down the gangplank on the last riverboat to stop in Grand Tower before the war, Noah is there to see her. He’s lost in a dream of love, but he also wants to fight. He wants to be a Yankee soldier…

Read the entire interview here.

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