sheri reynolds, writer
Bitterroot Landing

> Synopsis
> Excerpt
> Notes by author

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Bitterroot Landing

Hardback: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994
Paperback: Berkley, 1995

"The newest and most exciting voice to emerge in contemporary Southern fiction."
- San Francisco Bay Guardian

"An original, lyrically written tale . . . a beautifully realized character. . . Reynolds aims high and just about hits the bull's eye, displaying a self-assurance and a taste for moral and social issues that makes her debut a most welcome one."
- Publisher's Weekly

"Compelling . . . Reynolds brings a fresh look, her prose clear and distinct, to the prospect of reinventing one's life."
- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"The book opens with a rush of pure poetry that begs to be read aloud; it's laced with the sort of language that can lift you off your feet . . . a first novel that will be tough to top."
- Richmond Times-Dispatch

"A wonderfully compelling, powerful, moving, and complex coming-of-age story."
- Booklist

" A powerful new voice among Southern writers . . . Jael is captivating; she is bright, strong-willed, and very believable."
- Raleigh Spectator

"Sheri Reynolds's haunting voice will stay with you long after you have finished her scary and brilliant first novel. An auspicious debut for a very talented writer."
- Lee Smith, author of Fair and Tender Ladies

"Close the pages of Bitterroot Landing, and the smell of swamp water and red earth remains. In her remarkable first novel, Sheri Reynolds tells a lyrical tale of abuse, abandonment, and self-awareness . . . at once gentle and gripping . . . a tale of wrenching sorrow and spiritual renewal."
- Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star

Synopsis: From the book jacket

Bitterroot Landing introduces Jael, born into a hard life, but a survivor. She will survive even River Bill. The almost impersonal kindness of strangers will rescue her; a priest with a good heart will shelter and teach her; a careful man will take his time and love her back into the world.

Voices have always spoken to Jael in her mind, and some of what they have told her to do has been frightening. But the voices she hears now speak of comfort and courage, teaching her to master the ways other people manage to live. Jael has a job now, cleaning in a church, and a room of her own in the church's basement. As she dusts the statue of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin speaks peace to her. "There's definitely too much hurt around here," she says.

"In flaws, you find the truth," says the small, dark figure of a woman Jael sculpts out of wax.

"Come and look at the moon," says the homeless woman she meets at the Laundromat.

"Hello, I'm an incest survivor," say the women in the recovery group that meets every week in the church, just the other side of Jael's room.

Voices both real and imagined make Jael stronger every day, until she finds she no longer needs them. Until she finds that at last she has a voice of her own.

Read an Excerpt

So I was a ward of the court, and I slept on a cot in the basement of the Pentacostal church until old River Bill, a recently widowed deacon, offered to take me in. The church lady who came to bring me food and extra clothes delivered the news. As she picked the nits out of my hair, she said that it was a miracle from God that a man like River Bill would take a wild girl like me to raise as his own daughter. She said it was a blessing in disguise-that one of Mammie's regular customers had bashed her brains out in those woods, over a bottle of liquor. According to the church lady, Mammie had reaped what she had sown. She said there was new hope for my heathen soul.

It didn't bother me at all for one of those men to take the blame for my crime. It was their fault. And I knew they'd never pay for half the crimes they committed. I blamed them completely.

River Bill picked me up one blustery morning in his green truck and carried me back to Mammie's house where I collected my big winter coat, my wood-covered Bible, and my Mammie's black rubber shoes that she wore in the rain. I looked everywhere for her dark books written in the old alphabet, but they were not on the shelf where she'd kept them. I saw her clay pitchers shattered on the kitchen floor. I picked up my snake-beating stick on the way out. When River Bill saw my stick, he told me to throw it down, that there were plenty of other sticks where we were going, but I didn't. Being of gentle spirit, he let me bring it along.

Although I was afraid of River Bill, I liked him. I'd never had a father before. I'd always wanted one. The woman from the church said he never drank, and when he smiled at me, he didn't mock me with his teeth.

On that first day, we drove deep into the woods, along sandy, single-laned roads, curving between the stubby pin oaks that were made midgets by the grainy, white soil. From time to time, we'd cross makeshift bridges, and I'd hold my breath knowing that if River Bill turned that steering wheel just an inch too far, we'd sink into the murky swamp. You're supposed to trust him, I told myself. The woman from the church said I could trust him. But the words didn't keep my legs from trembling.

We went through great holes that bounced us high enough to bump our heads on the top of the cab. And sometimes, large branches would slap into the open window and sting my arm.

When we reached the landing, River Bill parked his truck up on the sandy hill, and we walked down to the river's amber edge.

"Put on them rubber boots," he told me, and so I did, fitting them over my shoes.

"I stood at the edge of the water and examined the transparent minnows swimming around my feet. River Bill pulled his boat out of the bushes, and the green wooden structure floated over to where I stood.

"Hop in," he said, and spitting tobacco, he pulled his cap down hard on his head.

I sat on the box where River Bill kept his catch. He sat at the back of the boat and pushed us off the ground with a paddle. Then he turned the boat around, cranked the motor, and sped off down the river.

I hadn't ridden in a boat with a motor before. It made me cold, and bugs splattered up against my head. I had to peel them off my skin with my fingers. On either side of us stood looming mossy trees whose shadows wavered and shone in the black water.

Soon we came to a place where it seemed the river ended, and River Bill slowed the boat down.

"You all right?" he asked, and I nodded.

"We got to go through a little rough place here. Just hold on."

And he turned the boat into a forest that had grown up in spite of the river. If I'd stuck my arms out, I could have touched the trees on either side of us.

"Duck your head," he'd say before we puttered beneath low-lying limbs. And occasionally, he'd jerk the boat to the left or right to avoid a cypress knee in the middle of our path.

Then we hit open water again, and River Bill gave the motor some gas, and I couldn't hear anything but the motor's hum and the wind against my face.

River Bill lived in a house built over the water. He ran a little store for fishermen, and I worked there for the next ten years, only leaving the river for trips to the grocery store or to church..

River Bill's house was on stilts, and it had a large wooden porch with a floating dock attached. On the porch, he kept an ice chest full of drinks. In the refrigerator, he kept paper cups of bait and packs of crackers in plastic wrappers. And he had a small stock of fishing lures and weights and hooks and lines and flies in bright colors. He sold boat gas. River Bill put me in charge of the store. Sometimes customers came every few hours, and sometimes nobody came for days. Still, I sat on the dock, my cane pole in one hand and a book in the other, listening to the mudfish jump, to the awful, soul-sick cries of bullfrogs. I didn't mind sitting outside-even in winter.

Since River Bill fished all day and dug his bait in the early evening, I had great spans of time to myself. Sometimes I'd paddle out in the one-man boat into the narrow paths between trees and logs. Sometimes I'd carry my radio that River Bill brought me from town, and play it for the alligators very loudly, and I'd say, "Do you hear that, you big scaly clod?" But I didn't get too close.

I liked to paddle underneath the house. When the river was low, I could scratch pictures into the green algae slipperiness on the stilts.

In the evenings when River Bill came home, I'd hold his boat steady while he'd climb out, and I'd secure the craft to a hook in the dock as he told me how many he'd caught. I'd carry the fish over to a table and scrape their scales off with a spoon, split their bellies with my pocket-knife, and rip the guts away with my fingers. Then River Bill would fry them in a cast-iron skillet along with corn dodgers. We'd eat on the dock, sitting in our rocking chairs and watching the sky. River Bill liked to eat the tails, so I'd give him mine in exchange for his fish roe, so orange and salty and good.

Before bed, I'd cut him a slice of the pound cake that I baked every Saturday, and River Bill would read aloud from the Bible. I didn't tell him when he mispronounced words. Sometimes I didn't know how to say them either, but I knew when he said them wrong.

Some days I didn't listen as he read. Instead, I tried to remember the names of plants Mammie had taught me. I couldn't always recall her language, but I knew the shapes of the leaves.

We slept in the same room. There were two beds pushed up against opposite walls, with a night table beside each bed. On the table beside his bed, River Bill kept a picture of his wife when she was young. I left the table beside my bed just the way it was when I arrived-with the picture of Jesus on the cross.

During my first winter with River Bill, I began wearing his dead wife's bathrobe in the early mornings when I rose to start the coffee. Then as I outgrew my clothes, I rifled through a chest and found some of her things that almost fit. So I wore them, smelling of cedar and age.

I'm not exactly sure when I became his wife instead of his daughter, but it confused me like nothing before. It did not make me mad; it made me hot and restless and lonely. I tolerated it so long as he had cleaned his mouth of tobacco. He was a toughened man who could have beaten me but never did, and I knew it couldn't be a sin since he prayed at night and woke singing hymns in praise of each red sunrise.

Copyright 1994 by Sheri Reynolds

Book Notes

I wrote the first draft of Bitterroot Landing when I was a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. I was taking a two-semester writing workshop with Tom De Haven, who limited the enrollment to seven or eight students and then asked us to commit to writing a novel during that school year. On the first day of class, I didn't have a plan at all, no idea what the topic of my novel would be. Tom explained that we'd submit our work in thirty to fifty-page chunks. We had one additional assignment - to read a novel every week and to read it like a writer, paying attention to the choices each writer had made. (What were the payoffs for writing the novel in third person, and how would it have been different told from first? Why did the book begin where it did? Why did the scene end where it did?) At the end of the first class, Tom asked me to submit my opening chapters the very next week.

Thirty to fifty pages, remember?

So I started writing. I didn't have a lot of time to come up with a plot, so I just decided to retell the story of Jael from the Old Testament. ( Judges 5.) Jael was the woman who hammered a tent peg through Sisera's head to save the Hebrew people, and I figured it'd be fun to imagine what sort of contemporary situation would yield up a sympathetic rationale for hammering a tent peg through somebody's head. But almost as soon as I started writing, I abandoned the bible story, and my Jael became a different character altogether.

Students who've read the book have often asked me about the voices of the women Jael hears - and what I intended when I wrote them. When I'm writing, I'm not intending anything, really. Writing for me is imaginative, even mystical, and I'm far from the analytic process at the time I'm creating the story. But I think that as I was writing, I brought with me a belief that we are always our youngest selves and our oldest selves, simultaneously, that even at our worst times we can be our own wise granny, that we have access to knowledge of things we haven't yet experienced or have long since forgotten.

Revision is the place for the critical mind to shape a narrative into its finest form, and I firmly believe that after the story's written, the writer has an obligation to question the choices she's made. But I also must admit that back in 1992, when I was twenty-four years old, I didn't give a rip about revision. I was way too excited about seeing my first book in print. Sometimes I look at the narrative choices I made in Bitterroot Landing and cringe a little. Mostly I don't. The book isn't perfect, but it's honest, and I have a soft-spot for scuff-marks and tarnish.