Tuesday, February 07, 2012

An earth-shaking anniversary

As many of you will know by now, today is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the celebrated English novelist.  This event has been noted by countless newspapers, libraries around the world, Prince Charles, and even Google.

As it happens, today is also the 200th anniversary of an event that sits a little closer to home.  The most devastating of the four earthquakes to hit New Madrid, Missouri – the most powerful quakes in the history of the contiguous United States – struck on February 7, 1812.  Some of the administrative departments on my campus held an earthquake drill today at 10:30am as part of the "Great Central U.S. ShakeOut" that focuses on earthquake preparedness.

In contrast to Dickens, the commemoration of the New Madrid earthquakes probably won't drive you to bookstores in search of reading material, but here I am with a recommendation just in case.

Jonis Agee's The River Wife, a literary saga in the best Southern Gothic tradition, was one of my favorite novels of 2007.  I've posted about it here a long time ago, but it's worth mentioning again.  Set in the isolated Bootheel region of southeastern Missouri, it crosses back and forth over 120 years of Midwestern history, from 1811 through 1930.

When pregnant Hedie Rails moves to Jacques Landing, Missouri, in 1930 to become Clement Ducharme's bride, she doesn't know she's also marrying into his disturbing family legacy.  As Hedie reads the diaries of Annie Lark, crippled in the New Madrid earthquake and rescued from Mississippi River flooding by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, she begins noticing eerie parallels between Annie's life and hers. Annie is only the first of several "river wives," women associated with Jacques over the next century and more. These include Omah, a freed slave who joins him as a river pirate; Laura, his fortune-hunting second wife; and her daughter, Little Maddie, who becomes Clement's mother.

I found The River Wife to be an all-consuming reading experience, with sharp depictions of its Missouri frontier setting and a sense of tragedy always lingering in the background.  It was published by Random House in 2007.

New Madrid, by the way, is said as "New MADrid," thanks to the quirkiness of American pronunciation.


  1. Small world! I found your blog through this post (http://www.ravelry.com/discuss/52-books-in-52-weeks/1964280/101-125#122), and here you are mentioning the New Madrid earthquake and *The River Wife*, one of many books in my Goodreads queue. I grew up in Cape Girardeau, but didn't know about the fault until just a few years ago. Thanks for posting about it and this book.

  2. Wow -- this book sounds amazing!! I'm adding to my TBR immediately -- such a unique setting and premise! Thanks for lifting this one up!

  3. Hi CatBookMom - love your nickname and the bright-eyed black kitty. I fit in that group too. I've noticed some visitors coming from Ravelry but don't have an account there so can't see what the discussion's all about! I live in eastern Illinois, and the landscape in southern IL/eastern MO is very different from where I am. The novel made the region come alive for me.

    Audra, I saw you added it on Goodreads - hope it works for you too. It does get quite dark in places (and in reading the Goodreads comments, I see I must have put some of that out of my mind, lol) but I really did love this book.