Cover image for River woman
River woman
Hemans, Donna.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Washington Square Press : Published by Pocket Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
232 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Urban Fiction

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In an unforgettable debut, Donna Hemans crafts a haunting novel of promises kept and promises broken, exploring the unyielding bonds joining mother and child -- bonds that neither time nor betrayal can sever. As she washes her laundry in the river, Kelithe is startled from her daydreams by the sound of women screaming. It is not until she sees a small body in the shallow water that she realizes what has happened. Her young son, Timothy, has drowned in the Rio Minho. The women of Standfast, Jamaica, whisper that she stood and watched Timothy die so that she could seize her chance to join her mother in America. Numb with grief, Kelithe lacks the strength to confront them. She can only wait for the funeral. And for her mother to come stand by her at last. It is into this cauldron of guilt, grief, and suspicion that Sonya returns to bury the grandson she has never seen. Fifteen years ago, promising to send for her five-year-old daughter soon, soon, Sonya set off for America. Year after year, she struggled to get settled enough to do right by Kelithe. But even as Sonya married and had a second daughter, Kelithe grew to womanhood under her grandmother's care, found fleeting love in a stranger's arms, and had a shame-filled pregnancy of her own. And when Sonya was finally ready, there was room only for Kelithe. Timothy would have to stay behind. Kelithe would have to abandon him as she herself had been abandoned. But Sonya would send for him soon, soon. What really happened at the Rio Minho? It is a question Sonya cannot ask, and an accusation Kelithe will not answer. And it lies at the heart of this shattering novel. In spare, powerful prose, Donna Hemans lays bare the human heart, and the many facets of truth.

Author Notes

Donna Heman's grew up in Brown's Town, Jamaica. At sixteen, she left Jamaica to complete her education in New York City, She currently lives in Maryland and works in Washington, D.C. as a wire service reporter.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Kelithe, a young Jamaican woman, has been waiting 15 years for her mother to fulfill a promise to return "soon-soon" for the child she left behind when she traveled to a new life in America. Washing clothes in a local river, distracted by the imminent change in her life, Kelithe doesn't notice her young son slip under the water. Or did she allow him to drown to ensure her prospects of leaving the stifling, forgotten little town where she faces nothing but disappointment? That question haunts the town's resentful women and Kelithe's neglectful mother, Sonya. Only Kelithe's grandmother stands between her and mounting outrage and suspicion. Sonya's guilt at not wanting motherhood to stunt her own youthful prospects prompts her to listen to the accusers rather than stand by her daughter. Hemans' first novel is a powerful look at guilt, betrayal, stunted ambition, and tortured maternal instincts. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Rio Minho in Jamaica provides much more than a setting for this potent, accomplished debut. Hemans is an original, although she never seems to be making a point of her uniqueness. Born in Jamaica and educated in the States, she apparently hears life sung by a chorus, not a single voice. The novel opens with the drowning of three-year-old Timothy, as his teenage single mother, Kelithe, is washing clothes in the river with the other women of Standfast, a small town that seems a century behind the times. The drowning prompts the return of Kelithe's mother, Sonya, who had abandoned her for a life in the States, promising "soon-soon" to send for the girl. It is revealed that just before Timothy's death, Sonya finally made the offer concrete, but on condition that Kelithe leave the boy behind. Abandonment is a major theme here not only by parents but by a government that has broken all its promises to Standfast and the myth of the beautiful but treacherous river mother, the Mumma, is a recurring metaphor throughout. Sonya returns to Jamaica for the funeral and finds the townsfolk united in their conviction that Kelithe stood by and let Timothy die so she could slip away unburdened to a new life in America. Will Sonya come to her daughter's defense or abandon her again? Hemans pitches the question as intensely as a thriller writer and answers it as resonantly as a poet. Northeast 4-city author tour. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Did Kelithe's son Timothy accidentally drown in the Rio Minho as the women washed their clothes, or did Kelithe stand by and watch Timothy die so that she could leave behind her life and join her mother in America? Though the women of Standfast, Jamaica, shun her and demand that she be put to justice, Kelithe remains mute and numb with grief. She can only wait for her mother, Sonya, to return from New York and stand by to defend her. But mother and daughter are virtual strangers after 15 years apart, and, in the end, nothing can comfort the devastated Kelithe. The tone of the novel is one of deep sorrow and abiding pain, making the book a difficult one to read for long stretches at a time. But it is also alive with the sights, smells, and tastes of Jamaica, its rich history, and vibrant people. Like the works of Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid, Hemans's first novel is one of stark lyricism and shattering emotional honesty. For all large public libraries. Yvette W. Olson, City Univ. Lib., Bellevue, WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.