” He was a doctor, but medicine was not an exact science. There was no cure for everything. As in life. The cause of death was always life. Across many years now, he had comforted people he knew would soon die. He hoped his consoling whispers would do them no harm. ” (3:46)
North River is what know as the Hudson that separates New York from New Jersey. In this novel, set in the 1930s, against this river that symbolizes both impermanence and closure, Peter Hamill gives us what he knows best—New York City. Rich in ambiance and period details, North River draws closely and intensely from the city, in the tight grip of Depression, where people are addled, desperate, and lonely.
But he had lost prayer somewhere along the way, along with faith. He had been educated to deal with the body, not the soul. In the Argonne, he lost what remained of the affairs of the soul, among the torn and broken bodies of the young, until the day came that he cursed God. (Ch.5, p.94)
In winter 1934, 47-year-old James Delancey ministers to poor patients in the tenements of Lower West Side. They are burst-outs who cannot afford to pay him but he treats them nonetheless. Among his patients are old stubborn heads who refuse to go to hospital, neighbors who blame him for loss, and lush husbands who beat their wives. On a snowy morning he finds his toddler grandson at his door with a note from his daughter, who is off to Spain looking her husband, a revolutionary from Mexico pursued by the FBI. Although flustered by his grandson’s impromptu arrival, the little boy infuses life and warmth into his home. To cope with his new domestic arrangement, Delancey enlists the help of Rose, a tough, decent and intelligent Sicilian woman with a secret in her past.
But across the days of other people’s illness and damage and painful unhappiness, the days of endless casualties, he carried Rose with him now. She and the boy had formed a current in his life, like a secret stream flowing south through the North River . . . It was a stream that was always in the present, not in the past, nor the future.” (Ch.9, p.164)
Indeed the past has haunted him that the nobly beleaguered doctor has transmuted his attention to the poor and needy. The influenza pandemic claimed both his parents’ lives. His wife Molly was furious with him for volunteering duty overseas. Unable to shake off her angry feelings of abandonment, she walks off to the river leaving him with his daughter Grace. This new life with Carlito and Rose is threatened by a mafia who is angry at Delancey’s treating the bullet would of a rival and refusing to reveal his whereabouts.
North River is both character- and plot-driven. Stewed in guilt, self-doubt and misery until his grandson arrives, the doctor has always lived in the past, held captive by dreams of his disappeared wife and haunted by the carnage of battlefield in France. Portraits of rouges and rule benders, along with the budding romance with Rose propel the novel, which truly evokes the Irish, for no other ethnic group so easily lends itself to such fertile inner conflict as shown in Delancey and the characters that populate this book.
341 pp. Back Bay Books. Paper. [Read/
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