The River Road
By Karen Osborn
Published by William Morrow & Co 
October 2002; 0688158994; 288 pages

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The River Road by Karen OsbornChapter One


Even now, I hear their voices in my head, calling me, cajoling, interrogating, telling the story again and again, as if you could make sense of it.

"Kay, come here. Look at this."

"Follow me, Kay. This way. Follow me."

I grew up next door to David and Michael on the Connecticut River in a valley divided into small farms. The fields beside the water spread to the hills where the woods begin. Whately, Hatfield, Sunderland, Deerfield -- as you drive along the river road, the towns appear. Beside the flat fields a range of hills rises like the soft, uneven humps of a beaver.

I knew the river from the time I was little. On a map in my room I traced its blue course through the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, into western Massachusetts past the town where I lived. In July the fields that ran beside it were patterned with flowering squash, pumpkin, tobacco, and corn, and the sky filled with the high hum of insects, the corn leaves rich and dark as if you could peel back the skin of the world.


Months later there would be piles of pumpkin and winter squash, the hills streaked with red maple and yellow birch, the river water layered with the colored leaves that folded into the swirls and eddies. Purple pokeberries and dark red sumac in the old pastures, a small grove of apple trees. I remember it all -- the hard sweep of snow in the winter, the barn down the road filled with Holsteins, goldenrod and dried thistles, corn stubble in the fall, and the sound of geese. There were wild roses in the pastures up near the trees and grapevines along the fence by the river. The grass was more than knee high. It scratched my legs as I ran through it, all the way to the water.

For thirteen years while I was growing up, I lived next door to David and Michael. As far back as I can remember, we ran through the fields and pastures by our houses, playing along the banks of the river. David was a sergeant, and Michael and I were captives. Or I was a river queen, and David and Michael were the swordsmen fighting a dragon for the smooth stone that fit the palm of my hand.

Both of them had brown hair and the lanky, long-legged build of their father. Michael's eyes were bright green, the color of the woods, and David's were nearly black, like those stones we picked up from the bottom of the river. During the summer we played in the cornfields, running through the rows of stalks, and when the river was shallow, we waded upstream, the cold water washing around our ankles.

"Kay, watch." An arc of water spread high across the air, until we were soaked and mud-covered, tired enough to lie in the sun and rest.

"When I grow up, I'm traveling everywhere," David told us, staring at the sky. "To other countries like Europe and Asia and Africa."

"Those are continents," Michael commented.

David turned to me. "You next, Kay. Say what you'll do."

I said I wanted to grow plants.

"Like farmers?" Michael asked. "I could do that."

David lay back again. "Say you could have whatever you wanted," he said, speaking to the sky.

Michael quickly answered fishing. No school.

"A plane," David told us. "One that could land anywhere, something that would fly me."


My father had disappeared before I was born. During their last two years of college, he and my mother had lived together in a house with other students; then, the summer after graduating, he decided to drive out to California with one of his friends. My mother got postcards from Colorado and Arizona, where he camped in state parks, and a letter that was postmarked Nevada, all describing the things he had seen and done.

Over the years mutual friends of theirs would tell us something about him -- he married at one point, got divorced, he had a job in the music industry, but my mother had stopped looking for him, and he never contacted us.

A year after I was born, my mother accepted a graduate fellowship in New York City, and a few years later she found a teaching position in the art department at a university in western Massachusetts. When we moved to the valley, we found an extended family in Jen, Kevin, David, and Michael. Kevin taught American history at the state university where my mother taught art, and Jen, who volunteered for an animal-rescue group, took care of me after school and in the summers while my mother worked. Usually it was just Michael and David and me playing together, but sometimes we met up with other kids who lived farther down the road. Jen collected kids the same way she took in hurt animals -- cats and dogs, foxes, birds of all kinds, and friends of David or Michael whose parents were going through a divorce or some other hard time.

From when we were little, I looked up to David with a kind of awe, partly because I had no father. In the beginning it was David's father, Kevin, who I looked to. I can remember him coming home in the evenings, throwing his books and briefcase down. He would put his arms around Jen, and then he would scoop up David and Michael in turn, hugging them hard or tossing them into the air. If I was still there, he lifted me also, tucking me against him for a moment so that I felt the roughness of his coat against my face or smelled the scent of coffee.

When I went home afterward, I'd carry the smell and the touch of him with me. "What happened at David and Michael's this afternoon? What was Jen doing?" my mother would ask when I was helping her to make dinner. And when I answered her, I would describe everything that had happened ...

The foregoing is excerpted from The River Road by Karen Osborn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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Karen Osborn, New York Times notable author of Patchwork, returns with a heartrending drama of love, family, friendship, and the long aftermath of tragedy.

Searing and unforgettable, The River Road explores the rippling effects of tragedy on the lives of two families. David and Michael Sanderson are brothers, inseparable since childhood from each other and from their neighbor, Kay Richards, who has become a complicated young woman involved in a passionate and obsessive love affair with David. One spring night, while at home on a break from college, the threesome embark on a night of adventure and experimentation, driving recklessly through the forested roads of the Connecticut Valley. Stopping at the French King Bridge, David -- full of youthful hubris and hallucinogens -- dares to jump off, mistakenly believing that he'll be able to swim ashore. With this senseless plunge into the frigid, swollen river he sets into motion an inexorable chain of events that indelibly alters the lives of everyone involved: Michael, who watched from the car; Kay, who stood next to him and helped him climb onto the rail; and both sets of stunned parents who receive phone calls on that March night.

Told through the alternating voices of Kay, Michael, and David’s father, Kevin, The River Road is a suspenseful narrative of the accusations, murder investigation, and tense courtroom battle that follows. Closely observed and psychologically penetrating, it brilliantly captures the individual anguish that is suffered in the wake of a life-shattering event, while also giving testament to the ways of survival and the endurance of love.

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Karen OsbornKaren Osborn grew up on Grand Island, New York, where she lived in a rural area along the banks of the Niagara River. She graduated from Hollins College, an all-women's college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and went to graduate school in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Since then she has lived in both the southeast and New England and has taught literature and creative writing at several colleges and universities. She is an Award-winning poet and the author of two previous novels, Patchwork, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Between Earth and Sky. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband and two daughters.

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