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Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here by Angela Palm

This memoir of a difficult upbringing in the heartland deals also with broader questions of place and free will.

riverine

Vermont editor Angela Palm grew up in a struggling rural Indiana community on the banks of the Kankakee. The river had been straightened to yield farmland, but it frequently flooded back to its original shape, turning each house into an island. Palm’s greatest happiness lay in her love for the boy next door; she fell asleep each night watching him through their bedroom windows. She dreamt of escaping her troubled home life, even without a clear idea of what escape might mean. And then the boy next door was sentenced to life in prison for a horrible crime.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here is Palm’s exploration of her roots and her journey away from them. By a complicated and sometimes messy route, she escaped rural Indiana, but the separation remains incomplete. Even with a family and creative life of her own, far from her hometown, she is pulled back, perhaps most of all by that boy next door, Corey.

Three parts form Riverine: Water, Fields and Mountains. In a blend of storytelling chapters and braided essays, Palm takes the reader chronologically through those environments of her life. Without clear plans, she nevertheless strives for a future free of obligation to her past, while also looking back, trying to understand its causes and effects. As a criminal justice student, for example, she contemplates theories for explaining criminal actions: behavioral, psychological, economic and policing theories, the broken windows theory and the biological theory of deviance. These she experimentally applies to Corey’s crime. Along the way, she repeatedly asks herself “how I loved a person who could do this and why I didn’t see it coming… why I still feel the loss of you in my life.”

Palm’s memoir is not only the story of her life and the divergent parallel life Corey has led, but also an examination of how place forms a person. “The need to look at other landscapes for clues about what already lies within us is real.” Much of her figurative journey away from the gritty setting of her youth has taken place through literal travel and relocation. Tellingly, Riverine begins with a child studying a map. Palm recognizes in herself “a fascination with selvage, run-down places and meaningful interactions with strangers… scarred lands and depressed buildings.” She seeks out abandoned spaces, looking for insight in damage.

Her writing is easy to read, compelling and draws the reader in with its momentum. Riverine is about self-determination, the origin of deviance, and places, particularly the liminal ones. “Fringe investigation was the science of my neighborhood and of my art.” Palm’s story is yet unfinished, but her memoir has an admirable structure and art of its own.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 broken windows.

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