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The River King

The River King

by Alice Hoffman
The River King

The River King

by Alice Hoffman

Paperback(Reissue)

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Overview

A story about a small town's surface appearance and the truths submerged below from the New York Times bestselling author of The Rules of Magic.

People tend to stay in their place in the town of Haddan. The students at the prestigious prep school don't mix with locals; even within the school, hierarchy rules as freshman and faculty members find out where they fit in and what is expected from them. But there are minor collisions happening everywhere: An awkward boy, the son of a teacher, is flirting with a pretty classmate, the daughter of a convenience-store cashier. A photographer in plastic flip-flops and an overflowing backpack is about to marry a staid, ambitious historian. And when a body is found in the river behind the school, a local policeman named Abey Grey will walk into this enclosed world and upset it entirely...


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425179673
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/01/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 536,680
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.92(d)
Lexile: 1160L (what's this?)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The Rules of Magic, Practical MagicThe Marriage of OppositesThe Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on EarthThe Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. She lives near Boston.

Hometown:

Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

March 16, 1952

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Education:

B.A., Adelphi University, 1973; M.A., Stanford University, 1974

Read an Excerpt

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.

For weeks, students were ferried to classes in rowboats; catfish swam through flooded perennial gardens, observing the disaster with cool, glassy eyes. Every evening, at twilight, the school cook balanced on a second-story window ledge, then cast out his rod to catch dozens of silver trout, a species found only in the currents of the Haddan River, a sweet, fleshy variety that was especially delectable when fried with shallots and oil. After the flood subsided, two inches of thick, black silt covered the carpets in the dormitories; at the headmaster’s house, mosquitoes began to hatch in sinks and commodes. The delightful watery vistas of the site, a landscape abundant with willows and water lotus, had seduced the foolish trustees into building much too close to the river, an architectural mistake that has never been rectified. To this day, frogs can be found in the plumbing; linens and clothes stored in closets have a distinctly weedy odor, as if each article had been washed in river water and never thoroughly dried.

After the flood, houses in town had to be refloored and re-roofed; public buildings were torn down, then refashioned from cellar to ceiling. Whole chimneys floated down Main Street, with some of them still issuing forth smoke. Main Street itself had become a river, with waters more than six feet deep. Iron fences were loosened and ripped from the earth, leaving metal posts in the shape of arrows adrift. Horses drowned; mules floated for miles and when rescued, refused to eat anything but wild celery and duckweed. Poison sumac was uprooted and deposited in vegetable bins, only to be mistakenly cooked along with the carrots and cabbages, a recipe that led to several untimely deaths. Bobcats showed up on back porches, mewing and desperate for milk; several were found beside babies in their cradles, sucking from bottles and purring as though they were house cats let in through front doors.

At that time, the rich fields circling the town of Haddan were owned by prosperous farmers who cultivated asparagus and onions and a peculiar type of yellow cabbage known for its large size and delicate fragrance. These farmers put aside their plows and watched as boys arrived from every corner of the Commonwealth and beyond to take up residence at the school, but even the wealthiest among them were unable to afford tuition for their own sons. Local boys had to make do with the dusty stacks at the library on Main Street and whatever fundamentals they might learn in their very own parlors and fields. To this day, people in Haddan retain a rustic knowledge of which they are proud. Even the children can foretell the weather; they can point to and name every constellation in the sky.

A dozen years after the Haddan School was built, a public high school was erected in the neighboring town of Hamilton, which meant a five-mile trek to classes on days when the snow was knee-deep and the weather so cold even the badgers kept to their dens. Each time a Haddan boy walked through a storm to the public school his animosity toward the Haddan School grew, a small bump on the skin of ill will ready to rupture at the slightest contact. In this way a hard bitterness was forged, and the spiteful sentiment increased every year, until there might as well have been a fence dividing those who came from the school and the residents of the village. Before long, anyone who dared to cross that line was judged to be either a martyr or a fool.

There was a time when it seemed possible for the separate worlds to be united, when Dr. George Howe, the esteemed headmaster, considered to be the finest in the Haddan School history, decided to marry Annie Jordan, the most beautiful girl in the village. Annie’s father was a well-respected man who owned a parcel of farmland out where Route 17 now runs into the interstate, and he approved of the marriage, but soon after the wedding it became apparent that Haddan would remain divided. Dr. Howe was jealous and vindictive; he turned local people away from his door. Even Annie’s family was quickly dispatched. Her father and brothers, good, simple men with mud on their boots, were struck mute the few times they came to call, as if the bone china and leather-bound books had robbed them of their tongues. Before long people in town came to resent Annie, as if she’d somehow betrayed them. If she thought she was so high and mighty, in that fine house by the river, then the girls she grew up with felt they had reason to retaliate, and on the streets they passed her by without a word. Even her own dog, a lazy hound named Sugar, ran away yelping on those rare occasions when Annie came to visit her father’s farm.

It quickly became clear that the marriage had been a horrid mistake; anyone more worldly than Annie would have known this from the start. At his very own wedding, Dr. Howe had forgotten his hat, always the sign of a man who’s bound to stray. He was the sort of person who wished to own his wife, without belonging to her in return. There were days when he spoke barely a sentence in his own home, and nights when he didn’t come in until dawn. It was loneliness that led Annie to begin her work in the gardens at Haddan, which until her arrival were neglected, ruined patches filled with ivy and nightshade, dark vines that choked out any wildflowers that might have grown in the thin soil. As it turned out, Annie’s loneliness was the school’s good fortune, for it was she who designed the brick walkways that form an hourglass and who, with the help of six strong boys, saw to the planting of the weeping beeches beneath whose branches many girls still receive their first kiss. Annie brought the original pair of swans to reside at the bend in the river behind the headmaster’s house, ill-tempered, wretched specimens rescued from a farmer in Hamilton whose wife plucked their bloody feathers for soft, plump quilts. Each evening, before supper, when the light above the river washed the air with a green haze, Annie went out with an apronful of old bread. She held the firm belief that scattering bread crumbs brought happiness, a condition she herself had not known since her wedding day.

There are those who vow that swans are unlucky, and fishermen in particular despise them, but Annie loved her pets; she could call them to her with a single cry. At the sound of her sweet voice the birds lined up as politely as gentlemen; they ate from her hands without ever once drawing blood, favoring crusts of rye bread and whole-wheat crackers. As a special treat, Annie often brought whole pies, leftovers from the dining room. In a wicker basket, she piled up apple cobbler and wild raspberry tart, which the swans gobbled down nearly whole, so that their beaks were stained crimson and their bellies took on the shapes of medicine balls.

Even those who were certain Dr. Howe had made a serious error in judgment in choosing his bride had to admire Annie’s gardens. In no time the perennial borders were thick with rosy-pink foxglove and cream-colored lilies, each of which hung like a pendant, collecting dew on its satiny petals. But it was with her roses that Annie had the best luck of all, and among the more jealous members of the Haddan garden club, founded that very year in an attempt to beautify the town, there was speculation that such good fortune was unnatural. Some people went so far as to suggest that Annie Howe sprinkled the pulverized bones of cats around the roots of her ramblers, or perhaps it was her own blood she cast about the shrubs. How else could her garden bloom in February, when all other yards were nothing more than stonewort and bare dirt? Massachusetts was known for a short growing season and its early killing frosts. Nowhere could a gardener find more unpredictable weather, be it droughts or floods or infestations of beetles, which had been known to devour entire neighborhoods full of greenery. None of these plagues ever affected Annie Howe. Under her care, even the most delicate hybrids lasted past the first frost so that in November there were still roses blooming at Haddan, although by then, the edge of each petal was often encased in a layer of ice.

Much of Annie Howe’s handiwork was destroyed the year she died, yet a few samples of the hardiest varieties remain. A visitor to campus can find sweet, aromatic Prosperity, as well as Climbing Ophelia and those delicious Egyptian Roses, which give off the scent of cloves on rainy days, ensuring that a gardener’s hands will smell sweet for hours after pruning the canes. Among all of these roses, Mrs. Howe’s prized white Polars were surely her finest. Cascades of white flowers lay dormant for a decade, to bloom and envelop the metal trellis beside the girls’ dormitory only once every ten years, as if all that time was needed to restore the roses their strength. Each September, when the new students arrived, Annie Howe’s roses had an odd effect on certain girls, the sensitive ones who had never been away from home before and were easily influenced. When such girls walked past the brittle canes in the gardens behind St. Anne’s, they felt something cold at the base of their spines, a bad case of pins and needles, as though someone were issuing a warning: Be careful who you choose to love and who loves you in return.

Most newcomers are apprised of Annie’s fate as soon as they come to Haddan. Before suitcases are unpacked and classes are chosen, they know that although the huge wedding cake of a house that serves as the girls’ dormitory is officially called Hastings House—in honor of some fellow, long forgotten, whose dull-witted daughter’s admission opened the door for female students on the strength of a huge donation—the dormitory is never referred to by that name. Among students, the house is called St. Anne’s, in honor of Annie Howe, who hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March, only hours before wild iris began to appear in the woods. There will always be girls who refuse to go up to the attic at St. Anne’s after hearing this story, and others, whether in search of spiritual renewal or quick thrills, who are bound to ask if they can take up residence in the room where Annie ended her life. On days when rosewater preserves are served at breakfast, with Annie’s recipe carefully followed by the kitchen staff, even the most fearless girls can become light-headed; after spooning this concoction onto their toast they need to sit with their heads between their knees and breathe deeply until their metabolisms grow steady again.

At the start of the term, when members of the faculty return to school, they are reminded not to grade on a curve and not to repeat Annie’s story. It is exactly such nonsense that gives rise to inflated grade averages and nervous breakdowns, neither of which are approved of by the Haddan School. Nevertheless, the story always slips out, and there’s nothing the administration can do to stop it. The particulars of Annie’s life are simply common knowledge among the students, as much an established part of Haddan life as the route of the warblers who always begin their migration at this time of year, lighting on shrubbery and treetops, calling to one another across the open sky.

Often, the weather is unseasonably warm at the start of the term, one last triumph of summer come to call. Roses bloom more abundantly, crickets chirp wildly, flies doze on windowsills, drowsy with sunlight and heat. Even the most serious-minded educators are known to fall asleep when Dr. Jones gives his welcoming speech. This year, many in attendance drifted off in the overheated library during this oration and several teachers secretly wished that the students would never arrive. Outside, the September air was enticingly fragrant, yellow with pollen and rich, lemony sunlight. Along the river, near the canoe shed, weeping willows rustled and dropped catkins on the muddy ground. The clear sound of slow-moving water could be heard even here in the library, perhaps because the building itself had been fashioned out of river rock, gray slabs flecked with mica that had been hauled from the banks by local boys hired for a dollar a day, laborers whose hands bled from their efforts and who cursed the Haddan School forever after, even in their sleep.

As usual, people were far more curious about those who’d been recently hired than those old, reliable colleagues they already knew. In every small community, the unknown is always most intriguing, and Haddan was no exception to this rule. Most people had been to dinner with Bob Thomas, the massive dean of students, and his pretty wife, Meg, more times than they could count; they had sat at the bar at the Haddan Inn with Duck Johnson, who coached crew and soccer and always became tearful after his third beer. The on-again, off-again romance between Lynn Vining, who taught painting, and Jack Short, the married chemistry teacher, had already been discussed and dissected. Their relationship was completely predictable, as were many of the love affairs begun at Haddan—fumbling in the teachers’ lounge, furtive embraces in idling cars, kisses exchanged in the library, breakups at the end of the term. Feuds were far more interesting, as in the case of Eric Herman—ancient history—and Helen Davis—American history and chair of the department, a woman who’d been teaching at Haddan for more than fifty years and was said to grow meaner with each passing day, as if she were a pitcher of milk set out to curdle in the noonday sun.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Graceful, beguiling, and quirky.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Rewarding…a novel not to be missed.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Set in and around an exclusive private school in fictional Haddan, Mass., bestselling author Hoffman’s latest novel flows as swiftly and limpidly as the Haddan River, the town’s mystical waterway…As ever, Hoffman mixes myth, magic and reality, addressing issues of town and gown, enchanting her readers with a many-layered morality tale and proving herself once again an inventive author with a distinctive touch.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Suspenseful and engrossing.”—Denver Rocky Mountain News

“It can be hard to find an example of good old-fashioned storytelling these days, but storytelling, refreshingly, is Alice Hoffman’s strength…The River King is full of wonderfully and satisfyingly odd twists and turns.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Reading her book is like having a dream that haunts even after we awaken.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

The River King is a novel as compelling as it is daring, an exploration of forgiveness and hope, a wondrous tale of innocence and evil, and of the secrets we keep.

For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the center of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the village from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together due to an inexplicable death, and the town's divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unraveled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a boy who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actionsboth past and presentslide by without notice.

 


ABOUT ALICE HOFFMAN

Alice Hoffman's novels include Property Of, The Drowning Season, Angel Landing, White Horses, Fortune's Daughter, Illumination Night, At Risk, Seventh Heaven, Turtle Moon, Second Nature, Practical Magic, Here on Earth and Local Girls. She lives outside Boston.

Praise

"Spellbinding. Hoffman opens old wounds and inflicts new ones in this evocative mystery of innocence transgressed and evil expelled."USA Today

"Alice Hoffman is, was, and always will be, a beautiful writer."The Washington Post Book World

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • Hoffman dedicates much of the novel to describing The Haddan School campus in detail. In what ways do the School's physical descriptions mirror actual events in the novel? Is Hoffman's description of the Chalk House foreboding for its inhabitants?
     
  • The line between past and present, living and dead, is often blurred in the story, creating a mystical, haunting atmosphere in which anything seems possible. How does Annie Howe "live on" at the Haddan School? What mystical or supernatural qualities did Annie Howe display while she was alive? Are there any ghosts in the novel, and if so, how do these ghosts from the past inform the state of things in the present?
     
  • How are Carlin Leander and August Pierce different from the other students at the Haddan School? What does each do in an effort to mask that difference? Do they succeed in this effort?
     
  • Almost every major character Carlin Leander, Abel Grey, Betsy Chase, Dr. Howe is forced at some point to deal with the death of someone close to them in The River King. Carlin believes she is still in contact with Gus Pierce after his death, while Abel Grey cannot even talk of his brother's suicide at an early age. Which do you believe is the best way to deal with such loss? In your opinion, does Gus Pierce actually visit Carlin after his death and leave her gifts, or is there another explanation for this? What was your reaction when Gus Pierce "appears" in a photograph taken after his death?
     
  • Throughout The River King, Abel Grey and Betsy Chase undergo significant character changes, both internally and externally. Discuss.
     
  • Thanks to the deceitful actions of Abel Grey, Harry McKenna gets expelled from The Haddan School and loses his admission into Dartmouth, despite the fact that he didn't actually cheat on his exam. Is this fair? Does Harry McKenna deserve a more severe punishment for his role in Gus Pierce's death?
     
  • Haddan is divided between the haves and the have-nots or, the Haddan School students and the Haddan town residents. In what ways does the symbolic distance between the two become greater over the course of the novel? In what ways does this distance become shorter?
     
  • Both Abe and Carlin Leander feel guilty for the death of someone close to themin Abe's case, his brother Frank, and in Carlin's case, Gus Pierce. In what other ways are the two characters alike, especially by the end of the novel?
     
  • What effect does the revelation about Abe's true grandparents have on Abe? Does it help explain anything about his personality? Why might Abe be aptly dubbed "The River King"?
     
  • Death imagery abounds in the second half of the novel. The last paragraph, however, contains a more hopeful image of Carlin swimming in the river one late afternoon. This parting sequence provides a positive contrast to the mostly dark images found up to that point: "the fish had grown used to her, and they swam along beside her, all the way home." Does this suggest the possibility of a brighter future for Carlin after the tragedy of Gus's death? Why do you think Carlin decides to swim in the river every day? Why, in your opinion, does Gus stop "visiting" her?
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