A Review of Angela Palm’s Riverine
September 9, 2016 § 4 Comments
By Karissa Womack
I grew up a river rat, near the banks of the Cahaba. Dad took me down to the river, an eight-year-old made of bones, where I paddled my first Dagger boat. The only rule was that I had to keep my head above the chicken water, what with all the waste dumping. You didn’t want that stuff in your mouth, never mind exposing your skin and scratches.
Angela Palm was raised along the rural floodplain of the Kankakee River, which had been rerouted a century before to create farmland. Confined by the boundaries of her backyard, the yellow space on a map between “two pink-dot towns,” Palm looked next door for her youthful ideations of love and escape.
In her Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize-winning memoir, Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, Palm divulges the trauma of growing up, her internal struggle projected upon and mixed up with the landscape. She falls in love with her next-door neighbor Corey, watching him through his bedroom window. After he commits a brutal act of murder that shakes her small town, Palm spirals away from him and eventually out of the floodplains for college, and later, married life in Vermont.
The men Palm loves and the wrongs they have committed cause her to question versions of herself, trying on labels, “girl who had possibly loved a murderer,” in the same way city girls might try on dresses. Her fixation with Corey sparks a deep, evolving interest in the criminal justice system, which she studies in college. Ultimately, she is drawn back to the Kankakee, into a friendship with Corey as he serves out a sentence of life without parole. Palm meditates on this magnetic pull forged between them in childhood, “What sticks and what doesn’t in the unseen expanse of the mind, what brief experiences get built up in the memory and become the icons of a life lived.” Corey is her icon and her pariah.
We take the river with us. I am drawn, as well, into the correspondence of a man serving life without parole. Unlike Palm, I never loved this man, but my childhood and the landscape of my town were altered by his crimes, by a story that pulls me back. Palm’s words resonate, “We never really escape the landscapes we inhabited as our brains developed.”
Her lyrical prose swims intelligently through reflection and memory. Her childhood is rendered with gorgeous sharpness, “Where hologram children play forever and eat electric blue Popsicles and never wash their hands and sometimes spear fish with arrows.” Like the Kankakee, her memoir’s narrative route is drawn back to the farmland of braided essays. By laying bare the most intimate traverses of her own mind, Palm guides us towards empathy, asking readers to consider the depths of our compassion.
Riverine is a map traversing three sections: water, field, and mountains. After journeying away, she writes the narrative of a place she had vowed to leave and lost touch with, “I could not knock on the door of any of these houses. I would not be let inside.” It has been a long time for both of us.
Karissa Womack is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida, where she serves as the Creative Writing Program assistant. She is the interview editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection.