The River Between Us

by Richard Peck

Family secrets are gradually revealed, like peeling layers of wallpaper, in Richard... read more

Family secrets are gradually revealed, like peeling layers of wallpaper, in Richard Peck’s Civil War novel set in the small town of Grand Tower, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River. When a New Orleans steamboat docks at the Grand Tower landing one night, two young women passengers disembark, and their arrival is a portent of the approaching war. Supposedly headed for St. Louis, Delphine and Calinda decide to stay for a while in this town divided in its support of the North and South. They board in the spare room at Tilly’s house at the edge of town, and soon both visitors and hosts discover they have much to learn about each other’s lives. Secrets abound from the start, from some obvious holes in Delphine’s cover story to unanswered questions about dark-skinned Calinda—could she be a slave? Their lives entangle further when Tilly’s brother Noah falls in love with Delphine shortly before leaving for the battlefield. Tilly and Delphine travel to nurse Noah when he becomes ill, and the following section brings to life the horrific conditions of the tent hospitals at Cairo, Illinois. While in Cairo, one of Delphine’s many secrets is revealed when she is recognized as a gens de couleur, the daughter of a white man and his black mistress. And although Tilly, Delphine, and Noah return to Grand Tower together, their lives have been irrevocably changed. The Civil War story is wrapped within a framing narrative set in 1916, told by elderly Tilly to a teenage descendant who learns this family history along with the reader. Yet a final unexpected revelation is made at the close of this mesmerizing historical novel that doesn’t hesitate to confront big issues, such as race, politics, war, and moral attitudes. (Ages 13–16)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2004

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