“Once Upon A River,” by Diane Setterfield, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2018, 480 pages
Once on a dark winter solstice night in the 1870s, an injured stranger stumbled into the Swan Inn. He was carrying the corpse of a little girl. Who was she? Three families had lost a child in past months.
The Vaughan family lost Amelia, the Armstrong’s think it might be Alice, and Lily White thinks it might be her sister, Ann. Rita Sunday, a skilled and beloved nurse is sure the child is dead, but seemingly a miracle occurs. The little girl opens her eyes, but has lost the ability to speak.
The Swan is a meeting place for evening drinking, but their main attraction is storytelling, each patron trying to out-do the other. A child coming back from the dead becomes their favorite story, each drinker with a different version to tell.
The story abounds with many folk beliefs about the river Thames as it winds through the countryside. The ghost, Quietly, a legendary ferryman rescues boatmen who are lost and drowning. Changelings, witches and dragons offer much material for the never-ending stories. A curiously wise pig appears to tell fortunes.
The identity of the small girl continues to be a mystery throughout “Once Upon A River.” She’s passed from one claimant to another, everyone having his own opinion. With such a colorful mob of characters, it’s storytelling at its best, heavy on description and atmosphere.
With the advent of literacy, then TV and movies, storytelling has become a lost art. People make sense of the world by telling stories. In this historical novel, an imaginative tale of three little girls affects the whole riverside town.
The story follows the twists and turns like the river including reality and supernatural. Several strands of the same story between science and superstition are woven together.
My favorite line: “Just ‘cause a thing’s impossible don’t mean it can’t happen.” A well-written story will pull you in at first, then hold you through the middle and finally give you a satisfying ending.