Ron Rash‘s Saints at the River opens with the death of a young tourist in one of South Carolina’s wild and scenic rivers. Ruth Kowalsky’s parents begin a campaign to defy laws governing the river in order to retrieve their daughter’s corpse from a dangerous eddy. From there, the situation turns into an even on both local and national levels, one in which people from all walks of life find a stake.
Rash weaves together political relationships at multiple levels–family, small town, state, and national–to form a story in which there is no right and wrong, where there are no winners or losers. There are just people, and none of them are perfect.
One of the most amazing things about this novel is how the river–that’s the Tamassee, if you’re wondering–becomes a character in the story, albeit a passive one. Like the humans at the center of the novel, the river is absolutely neutral. Yes, it killed the girl whose corpse some feel bears retrieving, but it did so out of–pardon the pun–nature, not malice.
Readers may not feel inclined to judge the Tamassee on her deeds, but Saints‘ human characters are a different matter. When Allen’s photographs of the dead girl’s father make it appear as if he is crying, and garner national attention, who is to blame? And who is responsible for the degeneration of Maggie’s relationship with her father? Saints will make you question whether any of us has a right to blame another for the things that happen in our lives.
Despite the many political battles waging throughout Rash’s novel, Saints doesn’t divide readers along party lines. Instead, it opens and presents for inspection the ugly sides of all involved parties; everyone has an agenda, whether they admit it or not.
Above all else, Saints is a testament abolishing the myth of neutrality. The Tamassee is the only neutral character in a novel where every man, woman, and child has a stake in the events to come. No one stands on the sidelines and remains unaffected. Ultimately, the novel’s message is purely political: to abstain from voting is to cast a vote, for better or ill.
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