Donna Hemans

"River Woman"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 17, 2002)

"Grams used to say that a hen loses to a rooster because it fights too hard. Hens flap their wings, squawk loudly. The rooster stands, its beak at the hen's neck. He wins. A simple strategy. Don't fight back too hard, she said. She used to say, as well, that if I talk too loudly, am too quick to defend myself, it shows that I'm guilty. But people also say that a silent river runs deep."

River woman by Donna Hemans

Set in an overlooked village in Jamaica, River Woman weaves an unforgettable tale of the consequences of abandoned promises - between a mother and a daughter and a government and its people.

Read Chapter 1 of River Woman.Without running water or electricity, women in the forgotten village of Standfast, Jamaica do their laundry in the River Minho. Kelithe, a teenage single mother, and her son are at the river with the rest of the women and children when she is suddenly startled by the sound of women screaming, running and shouting as they try to get her attention. When she sees a woman grab a small body in a blue shirt from the River Minho all at once she realizes it is her three-year-old son Timothy that has drowned. The women who are at the river claim it wasn't an accident; that she watched her boy drown so that she could join her mother in America. And this is what her mother, Sonya, hears first about the loss of the grandson that she never met.

Fifteen years earlier Sonya left for America, leaving Kelithe behind with her Grams and the promise that "soon-soon" she'd send for her. For all those years, Kelithe was patient, concentrating on her behavior and education so that her mother would be proud when she finally brought her to America. In eighth grade she received the prize for elocution and while boarding at Westwood High, where the "jippa jappa" girls were groomed to be a ladies, she received the deportment prize two consecutive years. While it's a tradition to speculate which girl will drop out due to pregnancy, no one expected it to be Kelithe. Shamed, she returned to Standfast to have her baby and live once again with her Grams, still hoping that her mother would send for her one day.

Finally, three weeks before her son's death, Kelithe gets the word from Sonya, that things are going well now and she can bring her to New York City; but she'll have to leave her son behind.

So when Sonya receives the telephone call about the grandson, she doesn't want to think about her daughter's motivation. Sonya is the kind of person who likes happy endings; she tells the end of the fairy tale first so that she knows it will come out right. So to avoid an unhappy ending, she doesn't ask any questions. And when Sonya arrives in Standfast, neither Kelithe nor her mother volunteer any information. Basically, Kelithe and Sonya are virtually strangers; and as ingrained, Kelithe waits to be asked. And Sonya's mother just assumes that a mother would stand by her daughter, thus sees no reason to speak up. So in fear and frustration, Sonya seeks the answers from the town women she used to know hoping to get at the facts. Miscalculating the intentions of the Standfast women, Sonya blindly lets these women seek their justice to put Standfast back on the map.

The technique of the novel is to allow Kelithe to tell her side of the story in first person narrative. Yet, she is grief stricken and deeply hurt by her own mother, and thus unable to defend herself. We are left to question her true intentions for her son until the end. And as Kelithe's narration unfolds, the story resonates with Sonya's actions, which underscore the chorus of cries from the Steadfast women as they gossip and shun. Overall, the story is told in seemingly simple language, but tells of the most complicated of human behavior and some unforgivable scenes.

This novel is a beautiful literary experience as well as a heartbreaking look at the issues of abandonment and the natural role of a mother. It is full of the sights and smells of Jamaica and through the use of folklore, Hemans mixes in the old time beliefs of these island people resulting in a powerful novel. I highly recommend River Woman and look forward to more from this new writer.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read an excerpt from River Woman at the MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Donna HemansDonna Hemans (photo by Eva-Lotta Jannsson), grew up in Brown's Town, Jamaica. She earned an undergraduate degree in English and journalism from Fordham University and an MFA from American University. Hemans' short fiction has appeared in Thema and MaComere: The Journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars. She works as a wire service reporter in Washington, D.C. and lives in Maryland.
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