Tuesday, December 3, 2013


"Follow the River"
by James Alexander Thom

I chose to read "Follow the River" by James Alexander Thom not so much to be entertained and inspired by the story of Mary Ingles’s escape in 1755 from Indian captivity and her torturous return from the Ohio River to her family’s frontier settlement west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had read about her ordeal, it being a true story, years ago. I wanted to see how Thom dealt with what I anticipated would be two major difficulties: description of her surroundings and portrayal of her thoughts and emotions. Being that Mary was isolated so much and that she was forced to trek through wild, diverse terrain, I recognized that surmounting these difficulties would be a substantial achievement.

Thom explains at the end of the book that he traveled Mary Ingles’s route home as part of his research. Not surprisingly, his description of her surroundings is genuine, readily believable. Included in much of his description is sharp sensory imagery, derived, I am certain, from close personal observation.

"Thunder grumbled, lightning flickered on the horizon, and as the clouds climbed, a blast of damp air shivered the surface of the river and turned the leaves of the forest white side up. Soon the thunderheads dominated the whole sky above the river; they came gliding across, their undersides lowering and dragging gray veils of rain under them. Birds and insects fell silent."

Equally impressive is Thom’s ability to describe Mary’s physical suffering, so necessary to evoke reader identification and empathy. In this passage near the end of the novel Mary is scaling a steep incline between two immense, vertical pillars of rock.

"She hung there for a moment, saw a leafless dogwood sapling two feet above her head. She got her numb left hand up to it and around it, forced the fingers to close, and pulled herself, panting and squinting, a little further up, her naked abdomen and thighs scraping over snow and rock and frozen soil, her cold-petrified toes trying awkwardly to gain traction."

Thom’s ability to narrate Mary’s thoughts and emotions is equally vital to the success of the novel. One aspect of her thought processes is her wavering allegiance to God. How could a benevolent, omnipresent Lord countenance the horrors she had witnessed and the miseries she daily endured? I appreciated especially these thoughts, which follow her successful ascent of the steep incline partially described above.

"She lay with her face against the frozen dirt and had her say with God.
Lord, I’ll thank’ee never to give me another day like this if I grow to be eighty.
No one deserves a day like this.
This is the most terrible day I’ve had in a hell of terrible days and I’m no’ grateful for it.
Now give me the strength to make my way across and down this devil’s scarp. Do that and then maybe I can make peace with’ee."

The detail of Mary’s ordeal makes the novel fascinating. Adding considerably to the tension of Mary’s situation is the presence of her companion, an unstable, middle-aged Dutch woman who becomes homicidal. Each chapter presents a specific conflict that is a component of Mary’s overall battle to survive and reach her destination. The story never loses momentum.

At appropriate places Thom’s narration touches the reader’s emotions. I was especially moved by Mary’s leaving-taking of her infant child, born during Mary’s early captivity.

"Her hot tears were dropping on the baby’s forehead and would awaken it; little frowns were disturbing its face and its little beak of an upper lip sucked in the soft red lower lip. Mary couldn’t stop herself. She kissed the little mouth and then, with anguish that would surely kill her, she rose to her feet and stumbled, tearblinded, to the edge of the camp, her lungs quaking for release, her throat clamped to hold down the awful wail of despair that was trying to erupt."

"Follow the River" deserves high praise.