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Book review: “Bitter River” by Julia Keller

keller --- bitterBell Elkins has just left Joyce’s Diner in the town of Aker’s Gap in Raythune County, West Virginia. She is the prosecuting attorney for the county and has a lot on her mind.

Still, she can’t help but stop and look around, taking in the streets where she grew up and the peaks looming nearby.

She knew the people who struggled to make a go of it here. Knew, too, the mountains piled up in the near distance, the jagged slabs of solid rock that always threatened — or so it had seemed to Bell, when she was a little girl — to gradually close over the top of the town, like a lid on a soup pot…

She’s tried to describe it once to a big-city friend, tried to put into words the singular feeling of living in a place presided over by a watchful mass of black rock, by a permanence you couldn’t push back against. Well, you could try — but it wouldn’t matter.

Bell is the central character in Julia Keller’s second mystery Bitter River as she was in the first one A Killing in the Hills.

I was deeply impressed last year with the high literary quality of A Killing in the Hills, ranking it with the work of James Lee Burke and P. D. James. Like those writers, Keller uses the mystery framework to look at what makes people tick — and at how their lives are shaped by the landscape in which they live.

Bitter River is better.

“Huge pale blocks of hands”

(Before I go on, you should know that Keller and I were colleagues in the features department of the Chicago Tribune for more than a decade. You should also know that, if I didn’t like her books, I wouldn’t praise them. I’ve had dozens of other colleagues and friends write books over the past 30-plus years, and I’ve reviewed very few. The others weren’t good enough.)

At the core of Bitter River are Bell and the other residents (and visitors) to Acker’s Gap.

Such as Walter Meckling whose son is in a hospital bed, his right leg destroyed.

She watched as Walter Meckling — faded blue denim jacket buttoned up to his chin, carpenter’s pants stiff with old sweat, ancient dirty boots — leaned over his son’s bed. Walter was tall and spare, with a tired hangdog face and a white beard and huge pale blocks of hands. A working man. He used one of those enormous hands to touch Clay’s arm. Bell heard Walter take a hard breath, and then the old man began to sob. Great, silent sobs.

“Little pieces of paper”

Walter is a minor character in a novel of nearly 400 pages, yet Keller accords him due attention. Maybe it’s the small-town nature of her story, or the small-town nature of her upbringing. Her willingness to see and understand even the lesser players in her story is one of the deep strengths of Bitter River.

Walter is a formal man. He has known Bell all of her life, yet he addresses her always as “Mrs. Elkins.” When she visits the hospital again, after the son’s leg has been amputated and therapy has begun, Walter tells her:

He’s mad at everybody. I brought him a bunch of cards from the folks at our church, with everybody offering their best wishes and some nice poetry and such, and you know what he did Mrs. Elkins? He tore up every last one of them cards and he threw ‘em back at me. Them little pieces of paper went everywhere. All over the floor of his room. So I got down on my hands and knees and I picked up all them little pieces of paper….

If you want to know about Bitter River, it’s about Walter Meckling crawling around on the floor picking up small pieces of paper.

“Natural facts”

And it’s about Acker’s Gap.

If each of us looked at where we live in the same way Keller looks at Acker’s Gap, we would understand ourselves more deeply. Consider what Bell sees as she returns to her neighborhood:

She looked with simple gratitude at the sturdy old houses. With their roots clenched deep in the dark soil, their redbrick chimneys slotted against the blue sky, their backyards melting into the woods that had been pushed back to make room for them, they were like natural facts of the landscape.

“Firmly tethered”

And it’s about the mountains.

Bell stands are a murder site, the bank of the Bitter River, and looks up:

The moon was verging on full tonight, a bright orange ball that had ascended at speed, clearing the top of the mountain in what seemed to be a single hop. But now that moon had stalled out. It looked restless, Bell thought, and maybe frustrated, too, like something that tries to make a clean getaway, yearning for escape, but is too firmly tethered. It was as if the mountain were holding it back, determined not to let the moon out of its sight.

Sure, there are mysteries in Bitter River. Suspense surrounds the investigations, and the solutions, for the reader, are satisfying.

But, listen, the heart of this novel is in Walter Meckling crawling on the floor picking up pieces of paper, and homes rooted deep, and the dance of the moon and the mountain.

Patrick T. Reardon

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