Cover image for The Sabbathday River
The Sabbathday River
Korelitz, Jean Hanff, 1961-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Physical Description:
504 pages ; 24 cm
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Jogging outside the town of Goddard, New Hampshire, Naomi Roth finds the body of a newborn baby girl floating facedown in the Sabbathday River. News of the dead child spreads quickly through Goddard, and Naomi - an aging idealist, a former VISTA volunteer, and the founder of a women's quilting cooperative - is shocked when the community swiftly, implausibly fingers Heather Pratt, a young single mother notorious for her affair with a married man, as the prime suspect. It comes as an even greater shock when, after a long interrogation behind closed doors, Heather confesses to the crime. Moved and angered by Heather's plight - and increasingly isolated in conservative Goddard - Naomi engages the help of Judith Friedman, a lawyer and fellow "flatlander, " to defend the young woman. But when the truth at the heart of this astonishing case - and the body of a second baby - comes to light, it is Naomi who must confront how little she has understood her town, her friend, and herself.

Author Notes

Jean Hanff Korelitz was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is the author of the novels A Jury of Her Peers, The White Rose and Admission, as well as Interference Powder, a novel for middle grade readers, and The Properties of Breath, a collection of poetry. Her newest novel, You Should Have Known, made the New York Times bestseller list. A film version of Admission starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin was released in March 2013.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Korelitz marries a powerful tale of obsession and murder with a searing examination of human nature. Also loaded onto the already full agenda are Lorelitz's ruminations on Judaism, friendship, and what it means to be a modern woman. Remarkably, it all works together brilliantly as a combination suspense thriller, courtroom drama, and cautionary morality tale. Naomi Roth moved to Goddard, New Hampshire, as a VISTA volunteer in the 1970s and stayed to found a local crafts cooperative. Years later, the cooperative is flourishing, in large part because of demand for the elegant embroidery work of Heather Pratt. Heather is a local girl whose only accomplishments are her exquisite needlework and her shocking affair with married handyman Ashley Deacon. Heather already has one child by Ashley, and when Naomi, out jogging one morning, discovers the body of a murdered infant in the Sabbathday River, the judgmental townsfolk soon conclude that Heather is both the infant's mother and its murderer. Naomi feels compelled to help Heather and even convinces local lawyer Judith Friedman to take on the thankless task of defending the girl. When the painful and shocking case is finally over, no one is left unscathed. Despite the occasionally overbusy plot, this intense novel adds depth and texture to the courtroom formula and is sure to attract Scott Turow fans. (Reviewed March 15, 1999)0374253234Emily Melton

Publisher's Weekly Review

When Naomi Roth pulls the body of a stabbed infant girl from the Sabbathday River, she precipitates an investigation that devastates the small New Hampshire town she hoped to save. Smart and engrossing, this thriller addresses the complex morality behind its characters' behavior with gravity and deep humanity. Idealistic Vista volunteer and New York Jewish liberal in search of a cause, Naomi turns local crafts into a booming catalogue business by the mid-'80s but never quite fits into the tightly knit New England community whose secrets unravel as townsfolk point fingers‘mostly at Heather Pratt, the proud and lonely girl who delicately embroiders traditional samplers and unapologetically bears the illegitimate child of a married man. Naomi sees little of the sisterhood she preaches among Heather's co-workers and neighbors, excepting only recent arrival Judith Friedman, a fellow Jewish New Yorker who befriends Naomi and defends the modern-day Hester in court. It turns out, however, that even Judith has her secrets. Korelitz (A Jury of Her Peers) traces the evolution of '60s idealism to '80s self-absorption, feminist vision to emotional chaos, religious devotion to moral decay. After the trial's dramatic climax, the reader is left with disturbing insights into the roots and ramifications of infanticide. Korelitz securely navigates the scientific shoals surrounding the crime. Her rich, often lyrical language occasionally becomes fussy but in general serves her well in conveying local color and atmosphere and in describing the moments of passion and betrayal in this compelling study of modern women with old-fashioned desires. 100,000 first printing; BOMC and QPB main selections; rights sold in Germany and Italy. (Apr.) FYI: Korelitz is married to poet Karl Muldoon. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

From the first page, Korelitz's (A Jury of Her Peers, LJ 2/15/96) spellbinding second novel is totally engrossing. Naomi Roth, a New York transplant living in a small New Hampshire town, finds herself drawn to the plight of Heather, a young social outcast who is accused of murdering her baby. Though a local in the area for nine years, Naomi still feels like an outsider herself and is compelled to offer support to Heather when the townspeople rush to judgment over the case and subsequent trial. The story is riveting for its compelling story and rich characters. Korelitz gives the reader everything: characters you love to hate, cultural clashes, mystery, and courtroom drama at its best. Highly recommended for all public libraries.ÄCaroline Mann, Univ. of Portland Lib., OR (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA-To the tourists who take day trips to Goddard, NH, during the fall foliage season, the town appears quaint and wholesome, yet its inhabitants ostracize those who are different, and Naomi and Heather are different. Naomi is a nonnative Jew who runs a needlework collective. Heather loves a married man and is oblivious to the community's scorn when she becomes pregnant. When Naomi finds a dead baby in the Sabbathday River, Goddard immediately decrees Heather as the guilty party and vilifies her. During the trial, her menstrual cycle, her trysts with the married man, and other aspects of her personal life are brought forth as evidence. These sordid details contrast with her lawyer's brilliant courtroom maneuvers. This satisfying story of courtroom drama, mystery, and friendships is filled with metaphors, lyrical phrases, and intriguing characters. This is not an easy read, but a disturbing one that examines the dissimilar lives of two women linked by friendship and, ultimately, two dead babies.-Pam Spencer, Young Adult Literature Specialist, Virginia Beach, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Eye Contact THE FIRST BABY WAS FOUND EARLY ON A WEEKEND morning in September, 1985, as the whole broad length of the Upper Valley braced for its annual riptide of strangers, and as the first maples on the banks of the Sabbathday River prepared to burst, obligingly, into flame. Naomi Roth found the baby. It rocked in an eddy, bordered by stones, and lay so white and, facedown, so still, that she first registered the object as a child's doll, seamless and albino plastic and tragically--to that child, at least--left behind here. Eyeing it, she could conjure that child's keening over its loss, over the uniqueness of this particular doll--set so decisively apart from its hundreds of thousands of sexless twins, born from the maternity of their Chinese or Thai assembly line. But then again, this was not the place for children, precisely. Children played downstream at Nate's Landing, where the Sabbathday widened slightly and merged with the Goddard River in its headlong careen south and west toward Vermont. There was a picnic area there, and the Rotary had put in swings a few years back, and a perennially overgrown sandbox where the mothers clustered and their kids occupied themselves. The water, kept safely away by a low picket fence, made its rumble downstream.     But the riverbank where Naomi found the baby was a good mile upstream from that place. Here, its curve through maples and leaning birches was fairly undistinguished, and though the path Naomi sometimes used for jogging did pass here, there was nothing remarkable about this particular stretch. The nearest landmark--and it was a pitifully local landmark at that--was the protrusion of boulders around the bend she had just passed, known familiarly as the Drumlins for the little hills of glassy water they made. Pretty, but lethal, since under that glassy water were rocks sharp as real glass. Who would let a child young enough to cherish that doll climb and wade around here?     Naomi stopped then. Grasping her knees, she put her head down and felt the blood rush to her forehead. She was not a very devoted runner. The temptation to stop was always with her, like a blackfly worrying the flank of a horse. The rasp of her breath overwhelmed the rustle of leaves. She felt the heat in her face begin to throb. Naomi glared at the doll, holding it responsible.     Or not this doll, exactly, but the one it was prodding her to fixate on--a specific childhood trauma, happily undisturbed in its thirty-year slumber but now assailing her with disconcerting immediacy. Stop this, she thought, but she had already slipped away from herself and the doll was upon her, and how much she had desired it, and how much, for how brief a time, she had adored it. She saw, freshly, the two blond little girls in smocked dresses on the television commercial; she could hear the happy jingle extolling the doll's mind-bending ability to wet. And her name: Sallie Smiles! (The exclamation mark thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer.) Naomi Roth's parents--they of the Little Red School House and Pete Seeger persuasion--had been horrified, naturally enough, but she must have had her fill of ant farms and nonsexist creative discovery objects. The small blond pixies on the television were the company she kept in her fantasy of the parallel childhood she was not leading. She coveted the doll.     When it disappeared, less than a week after her birthday, she had waited before panicking. Then she approached her parents, whose unmistakable relief over her carelessness--the carelessness they assumed, despite her denials--was clear. Naomi's older brother declined to shed light on the situation, but months afterward it was from his window that she saw her doll again, grimy in city filth on the roof of the apartment building next door. It lay on its stomach against the asphalt, its bright face obscured, its fleshy pink hue bleached to stark white, and the legs between which it had wet so endearingly splayed to the extent of its somewhat limited hip sockets. At that moment, long before mortality and years before sex would enter her ken, she experienced a primitive understanding of the terrifying and the obscene. This tiny, blanched, and helpless body: a distilled drop of pure horror, fallen from the sky to splatter within view of her childhood home as a warning of what adulthood held in store.     Naomi Roth shook her head. The thing in the river was some child's missing toy, after all, not a Proustian moment dropped from the clouds. It had probably been lost hold of upstream and then drifted down here, she thought, taking a tentative first step onto one of the boulders: an accident and a force of nature working in hardly malevolent partnership, and not an invitation to moan about unresolved childhood trauma. At some point, a banana just had to be a banana again, and a doll just a doll, otherwise what's the point?     Farther out, the rocks were slippery with moss. She picked her way on all fours, inching ahead as in a game of Twister, with the silvery and frigid water hissing and sputtering at her heels. Drawing nearer to the white gleam of the doll, caught in its eddy between dark stones, she touched the green sludge of the rock near its smooth white leg and felt a preemptive chill. Cold, Naomi thought. She felt her lips move and realized she'd spoken aloud. But why? "Cold," she said again, this time making a joke of it. But it was, wasn't it? Suddenly cold? She should look up, really, see if clouds had gathered, if it looked like rain, here, in the middle of her morning run, with only her shorts and a thin T-shirt on and a good two miles to go before the path gave out onto the road where she had left her car. But looking up would mean taking her eyes off the doll, and Naomi could not seem to take her eyes off the doll.     The leg of the doll. A strand of vegetation wedged into the crease behind its knee and fluttering in the glassy water. That joint was stiff, perhaps, but not unyielding, ultimately, since she could see that it gave just slightly in the current, and at its side the brief fingers seemed to feather the water. Realistic, Naomi thought, by now aware of the hysteria edging nearer, the strain of pushing it back. And in the barely perceptible sway of the doll's lower back, where its spindly midsection suddenly widened into a cherubic bottom, a vortex of three dark hairs fluttered below the surface. The doll's shoulder blades uneven, one ridge more sharp than the other, as if the mold had been made deliberately lopsided, the doll's wisps of unglamorous dark hair riding the surface of the water, the doll's eyes ...     Open, Naomi knew, though she could not see its face, wedged against its crown of river stones. Open eyes, baffled at whatever great force would summon it here only to show it this frigid and unchanging vision. Only this! She touched its shoulder and felt its newness, even in death. She was gripped now. Something had her about the lungs; some cold thing had infested her, making her grope for the tiny, splayed, and forsaken body in the river. Naomi reached for one alabaster limb and, touching it, felt the burn of a frozen thing. She turned it over then, setting her jaw against its flash of white. The word "bloodless" was forming in her throat. The flesh was smoothly pristine but for a single puckered interruption where something had bored, leaving the same kind of queer, unembellished wound you saw in medieval paintings of Christ -- one dainty drop of precious blood spilled from a Roman gash. A girl. Naomi's cheek scratched a granite boulder as she lost her balance. Her own hand finding her belly, her belly heaving onto the surface. Her eyes closing now, then opening, but underwater, too, as if she had only wanted to see what the baby had seen in its long ebb here, with its granite-gray eyes that hadn't had a chance to turn, and she wondered, vaguely, what color they might have become, had they always looked out with such hope as they did now, fixing the awful affront of this radiant sky with a stare Naomi could not bring herself to meet. Copyright © 1999 Jean Hanff Korelitz. All rights reserved.