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A Review of
Riverine: A Memoir
from Anywhere but Here
Paperback: Graywolf Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Sarah Lyons
How is it possible to forget something that the land itself remembers?
When Angela Palm was in high school, her next-door neighbor and the boy she loved was sentenced to life in prison. Corey, just coming off drugs and suffering from withdrawal—details Palm would not learn until much later in her life—murdered two of their elderly neighbors and then stole the couple’s car, lighting it on fire a few towns away in an attempt to erase what he’d done. In the days that followed his arrest, Palm’s rural Indiana hometown would speculate as to what his motives were. Her government class took the opportunity to talk about opposing views on the death penalty. Coworkers whispered rumors until they noticed her listening, and then silenced themselves in a weak attempt to protect her. No one asked Palm if she was okay, and so she buried the trauma silently inside her.
In Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, Palm leads the reader from section to section of her life, mapping out key events and the people who influenced her most. Her prose is both beautiful and heartbreaking, the kind where certain turns of phrase and scenes linger in your mind long after you’ve put the book down. “The place stays, and the people go,” Palm writes at one point as she questions whether we mold ourselves to new environments or whether the history we bring with us dictates where we end up. “[The people] take the experience of the place with them in their perceptronium. Thought could be a state of matter, resilient as water or stardust, moving in parallel with the passing of time” (40).
But it is not just the events of a person’s life that shape them, just as it is not just the towns and cities that make up a map. Equally important are the empty spaces, the large stretches of blank and unknown moments that exist for lingering and discovering. At the book’s opening, Palm tells us how she once asked her mother to drive to an unmarked and unnamed part of the map, between her town and the next, in hopes that it was up for grabs and that she could claim it. After a short drive in the car, her mother stopped to let Palm look around; their house was still visible in the distance. She had already been living in what was essentially the empty space.
Despite her efforts to bury the trauma of Corey’s arrest, Palm is unable to keep from living in an emotional empty space as well—a ‘lack’ that, though unnoticeable on the outside, completes the map of her person. In college, she studied criminal justice in hopes of not only understanding why people commit violent crimes, but also so that she might one day save them from the fate of the system. Though eventually marrying a pilot and moving out east to Vermont, she admits to feeling truly comfortable in the rural areas, the areas between the towns, that feel like home. Although people may move, the memories stay.
Palm’s reconnection with Corey is one of the most powerful, and most painful, sections of the book. Though she never dips into melodrama or excessive sentimentality, the emotional tension reads very intimately. Her writing too is strengthened by the commentaries she offers us on issues of social justice. Insightful and well-researched, these additions make more communal her relationship with Corey; Corey’s life sentence becomes a visible manifestation of a system that we readers may have once tried to distance ourselves from.
If there is a critique to be had about Riverine, it is that it occasionally loses the reader in its non-linear storytelling. The movements from memory to memory mirror Palm’s physical movements from place to place, consistently returning to the trauma and land that she can’t quite get away from. For the most part I enjoyed the momentum that this narrative structure provided, as it reminds the reader repeatedly that even if we can move forward, the events that have shaped our lives will still be carried with us. Yet nevertheless, there were instances—particularly in the early sections that recalled Palm’s childhood—where I found it challenging to track exactly where in time an event was taking place.
Riverine demonstrates again and again how memory is carved into the land and the ways in which place and memory are inextricably woven. At one point in the book, Palm writes about driving to the empty field where Corey had his last moments of freedom as he burned the neighbors’ car. “The soil was frozen, charred. A petrified crime scene. I said his name over and over, calling him back to ground he’d never set foot on again. I wondered if life would ever grow there again…” (84). Though Palm is unable to forget the boy from her past and the pain rooted in her hometown, it is her love for both that can perhaps create new life.
Sarah Lyons is a second-year Master’s student studying creative writing at Illinois State University. Her work has previously appeared in Art House America, and she has worked as a reader and production assistant on Spoon River Poetry Review. In her spare time she enjoys gardening, a recent and possibly short-lived hobby depending on how much success she has in keeping her plants alive.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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