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In the River Sweet
By Patricia Henley
ISBN: 0375421270
Review by: Marilyn Dallman Seymour


Patricia Henley’s In the River Sweet is a beautifully written book about love and sorrow, trust and betrayal, honesty and secrecy, brokenness and reconciliation . . . among other things. It is also a story about the effects of the Viet Nam war on various people.

Ruth Anne and Johnny Bond have a comfortable marriage. Johnny runs his own restaurant, and Ruth Anne works at the library in their sleepy midwestern town. Their only child, Laurel, teaches composition at the local college. Into this contented family comes chaos. Ruth Anne receives an e-mail message from her son—a son no one in her family knows exists. Henley expertly weaves the present story with the past of both Ruth Anne and Johnny and their time in Viet Nam. Yet Henley does not stop with this one example of how the peace of a family can be torn apart. She also confronts the violence of homophobia; Laurel and her partner Oceana are secretly and brutally attacked by homophobic men who have previously vandalized churches in the town by spray-painting the word “fag” on them.

Henley moves from the present into the past, telling the story of Ruth Anne and Johnny as two young teenagers who plan to be married when Johnny is sent to Viet Nam. Ruth Anne wants to be near him, and she is accepted as a volunteer by a Catholic convent in Saigon. Her duties are to repair books in the convent library and to read to a blind Vietnamese boy. Because of their proximity to each other in a country far from home, Johnny and Ruth Anne plan a weekend rendezvous. As Ruth Anne breathlessly waits for what she is certain will be their first sexual encounter, Johnny never appears. She can learn nothing of what has happened to him, and she fears the worst. As she goes about her life in Viet Nam, dazed by Johnny’s disappearance, she becomes closer to Vo, the young man to whom she reads. They share a love of literature, and they find comfort in each other’s presence. When Ruth Anne and Vo are alone during the Tet Offensive, scared and hiding from the gunfire and explosions mixed with the celebratory fireworks, they make love. When Ruth Anne becomes pregnant, she stays in Viet Nam, and has her son Tin. Then, in the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Saigon, she is forced to leave. As an American, she is a danger to Vo and his family in the Communist-controlled city. She leaves her son with his father and grandmother and never hears from them again. When Johnny returns to the U.S., with secrets of his own about the horrors of war and the secret missions in which he participated, Ruth Anne and Johnny finally marry, and Ruth Anne keeps the existence of her son a secret from Johnny.

Patricia Henley tenderly examines the toll on Ruth Anne of her secrecy. When her son contacts her, she is torn between the need to see her grown son, and the terror of telling her family the secret. After several cautious e-mail messages, she agrees to meet her son. The meeting is healing for them both. She eventually sees Vo, her former lover who has married. Finally she tells her family. Laurel, who is recovering from her attack, is fascinated with the fact that she has a brother and wishes she had known about him earlier. Johnny feels the full brunt of the betrayal. Over time he reconciles himself with Ruth Anne’s secret in part by confronting within himself the horrible secrets of the Viet Nam war he has kept from her. Henley examines the meaning of family and the damage we can all do to one another. The novel ends in possibility: possibility for reconciliation for Ruth Anne and Johnny, possibility for happiness for her son Tin and his new wife, and possibility for a new life for Laurel and Oceana as they move to New Orleans to escape the violence they have experienced.

Henley writes, “we are forever striving, failing, striving, failing, to make meaning with language” (141), and with In the River Sweet, Henley proves it is possible. As she did in her earlier collections of short stories, Friday Night at Silver Star, and The Secret of Cartwheels, Henley vividly portrays women and men who strive to find personal meaning in a world that is often impersonal.

I heard Patricia Henley read from her work several years ago, and with In the River Sweet, her voice resonates as it did in the packed auditorium: pure and sweet, and with brutal honesty. It is a voice to listen to again and again.

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