‘Warm River’ by Erskine Caldwell

Warm River by Erskine Caldwell, 1932

The magic trick:

The remarkable scene in which the father remembers his dead wife

What a theme today. Caldwell sets out to illustrate the quest to not only understand love but to embrace its crazy risk-reward ratios.

The scene on the porch with the father and the two lovebirds is the crucial one here. First of all, the father’s heartbreakingly open recount of the way his wife’s death has affected him is crushing. We’re defining love by the loss it leaves. So, yeah, that’s heavy enough. But then we get the continuation of the conversation between the man’s daughter and her boyfriend (our narrator). There is no indication that the father leaves. No stage direction or transition at all. So I read the scene as it still being the three of them sitting together on the porch. The girl is pouring her heart out. The boy is stating plainly his rejection. And the dad’s right there? It definitely puts an interesting twist on things. The story moves on from there, but it’s that scene that remains in the reader’s mind.

And that’s quite a trick on Caldwell’s part.

The selection:

Gretchen leaned closer to me, and I could not keep my eyes from her darkly framed profile beside me. The river below us made no sound, but the warmth of its vapor would not let me forget that it was there.

Her father had bent farther forward in his chair until his arms were resting on his knees, and he seemed to be trying to see someone on the other side of the river, high on the mountain top above it. His eyes strained, and the shaft of the light that came through the open doorway fell upon them and glistened there. Tears fell from his face like fragments of stars, burning into his quivering hands until they were out of sight.

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