Stranger on a train
T. Greenwood's novel Two Rivers begins with a lynching—or does it? We learn later that the incident happens in 1968, not 1928, and in Vermont, not Mississippi. We also learn that one of the possible participants, Harper, lost his pregnant wife that same night. When the action fast-forwards to 1980, we see Harper save an odd-eyed pregnant girl from a train wreck. Are these events all somehow related?
Two Rivers is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, with its quiet New England town shadowed by tragedy, and of Sherwood Anderson, with its sense of desperate loneliness and regret. It's as if the loneliness that has plagued Harper since the death of his wife—the beautiful and ebullient Betsy, a girl he'd loved since they were 12 years old—has reached out and infected the landscape. The novel, after all, is set in autumn, a time of fading and gathering cold.Even the protagonist's name, Harper, calls to mind To Kill a Mockingbird, with its painful racial entanglements also set in a small town. Yet the girl Harper saves from the train wreck, who calls herself Marguerite, brings warmth and hope to Harper and his daughter Shelly, who was born that dreadful night and whose 12th birthday Harper nearly forgets. Marguerite, a black girl from the South who claims to have been exiled from her own town because of her pregnancy, is completely comfortable with these white folks she's never met. Why?
Along with Harper, Shelly, Marguerite and Betsy, Greenwood fills her novel with memorable characters, especially in the flashback chapters. There's Harper's mother, the town misfit, aflame with her indignation at injustice and whose passion for the civil rights movement seems to have led to her death. Harper's father, by contrast, is sad and passive. There's Harper's not-quite friend Brooder, a veteran disfigured in Vietnam, who was also in love with Betsy. Did his love for her lead him to do what he did the night the black man was lynched? It's to Greenwood's credit that she answers her novel's mysteries in ways that are believable, that make you feel the sadness that informs her characters' lives.