By David Nilsen
Angela Palm grew up in the middle of nowhere, and only someone else who grew up in the middle of nowhere can really understand what that means. In Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, Palm tells of her childhood in northeastern Indiana, on the banks of the Kankakee River. The river’s course had been redirected in the early twentieth century to make the arrangement of farm land around it more convenient, but the river never really appreciated this adjustment, and periodically inundated its old river bed when it flooded. That old river bed, unfortunately, contained Palm’s small neighborhood of low income families, and sandbagging, wading, and drying out became regular parts of Palm’s childhood.
Right next door to her house growing up stood the house of Corey, her close friend and the object of her mounting adolescent desires. Their windows faced each other, and they spent many nights watching each other across the darkness between their lighted windows, shouting messages when they could. They spent their summer days getting into the kind of danger only rural children can imagine, and watching the grown ups in their lives try to scrape a life from a back corner of the world, succeeding and failing with equal regularity. Palm’s descriptions of this strange childhood struck a deep chord in me. I too grew up in northern Indiana, dirt poor and wild, terrified and free, with far too much freedom to roam in feral packs with other kids, playing in swamps and forests and unfamiliar houses that all could have seen us off in one way or another. So much of what Palm shares from her youth, stories that would probably shock anyone who grew up in a city, were echoes from my own childhood.
Corey, the object of Palm’s pubescent desire and affection, was convicted of murdering two elderly neighbors in his late teens. He pleaded guilty, and received a life sentence. This event sent shockwaves not only through the small community in which Palm grew up, but through her own heart, a heart that never really let go of its yearning to be closer to this enigmatic and volatile boy. Palm did her best to get on with her life, though a child from nowhere who grows up in poverty with parents still dealing with their own childhoods has enough to deal with already. She fumbled through her college years and her twenties before falling in love with an airline pilot and settling down into a semblance of a normal life in Vermont. And then she got back in contact with Corey.
She’d written him for a time during college, but lost touch for many years. When she began communicating with him again after she had kids with her husband, questions that had been left unanswered for too long rose to the surface. She went back to Indiana and visited him in prison. They discovered they still held a part of each other, still felt what they’d felt when their lives had been interrupted as teens. The scene of their reunion–their conversation in the visitation room at the prison–is emotionally intense, and holds perhaps the best writing of the book. The honesty with which Palm addresses her lingering feelings for Corey with her husband when she returns home is raw but powerful.
The middle section of Riverine, in which Palm meanders through her twenties, droops a bit. Her experiences are real and worth telling, but fail to sustain the gravity of the early chapters about her childhood or the later ones about the exploration of her renewed relationship with Corey. I felt frustrated at times with how a lot of fairly universal (or at least closely adaptable) experiences were promoted as singular and profound. There is a way in which any true human experience is profound, yes, but not all of them merit chapters in a memoir. The book nearly lost me through this middle section, but the book’s final movement is so emotionally intense, it is worth sticking around through this middle slump to get to it.
It’s hard to explain to someone who grew up in a place that mattered to the outside world what it was like to grow up in a place that didn’t. You feel permanently unrooted, like there is no place to go back to that is an actual place anyone would recognize. You never see your home mentioned in novels or songs, you never hear about a celebrity from your town, you never see your neighborhood show up in a movie scene. To tell people where you grew up, you have to find the closest city they’ve heard of and give a compass point and a distance. As you get out into the world and see how big it is, the place that held your days and nights for so many critical years can begin to seem unreal, like it never existed. And most likely, it probably is gone now, in the way you once knew it. The only thing that can prove it existed the way you remember it is you. You have to write it down. You have to tell that story. Angela Palm does just that in Riverine, making the middle of nowhere a little more familiar.
Riverine will be available soon at GPL.