The River Road: A Novel in Linked Stories
- by Nicki Yackley-Franken (2008)

Tricia Currans-Sheehan's new book The River Road is a literary treasure for all of us who grew up surrounded by Midwestern landscapes and rural people. Like her main character, Currans-Sheehan was raised on a rural Iowa farm in the 1960s. This novel linked in stories captures the essence of rural Iowa, and Currans-Sheehan develops stories that could happen absolutely nowhere else. In this book, we see all the simple beauty, all the tragedy, all the surprises of rural farm living.

The River Road offers an unflinching look at rural life. While the storyline focuses on the development of Brigid O'Connor, the main character, it also reveals many unspoken truths that anyone who grew up in such environments will find familiar. In nearly every story, for instance, we meet a family on the river working to hide family secrets from neighbors— neighbors who already know the truth. Life on the river road is not really as simple and mundane as outsiders would suspect. Yes, days revolve around baking angel food cake, harvesting corn, and attending inherently rural events like trap shoots and 4-H meetings; however, there is much more going on under the surface.

The most appealing aspect of this novel is its honestly-portrayed and endlessly-endearing main character. The reader follows Brigid as she matures from a child to a woman despite being deserted by her mother and raised by a reticent farm-working father. Without a mother figure, Brigid seems half child and half adult throughout most of the stories. She makes mature decisions and mature statements, but she is still a child wanting acceptance and searching for her identity. Every step in Brigid's development is shown to us through a short story—each of which depicts an episode or set of episodes that moves her forward toward understanding herself, her family situation, and her rural existence.

Brigid's innocence, her inquisitiveness, and her imperfections make her painfully real. We understand her motives, her curiosity, and her logic in each story. We forgive her for selfish decisions—like the time she runs home after having an uncomfortable encounter with a "slow" neighbor girl. And we cheer her on when she shows her stubborn determination to learn her mother's story despite people in the community who try to keep it a secret. The reader becomes invested in Brigid's development, and when the stories end, the reader wants more. It's hard to let that character go.

Brigid is not the only intriguing character; the stories are steeped in interesting figures. There's pyromaniac loved by her family but obsessed with ovens and science experiments, a stalker with a loyal horse and a despicable temper, a "girl" who seems sweet but pees standing up, and a couple of overly-flirty teenage beauty queens whose lives are not nearly as perfect as they first appear. Currans-Sheehan reveals the humanity in each character, no matter how minor.

Like the Iowa landscape, Currans-Sheehan's book has unexpected twists. Readers learn to quit expecting what will happen because they just never know. The odd gets odder and the truth is rarely what was anticipated. This novel takes the reader on a journey compiled of both the simple and the strange, captivating its readers with variety, honesty, and surprises. From beginning to end, the stories never disappoint.

Nicki Yackley-Franken is a librarian and an English instructor at Lake Area Technical Institute, Watertown, SD.