The River of Kings: a Novel
Author: Taylor Brown
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (2017)
Genre: Historical Novel
Hardcover Edition: 315 pages
Source: Personal copy
Since I read Janisse Ray’s entrancing book Drifting to Darien about her relationship with Georgia’s Altamaha River and it’s forest of trees: water hickory, river birch, magnolia, tupelo, swamp oak and cypress, the place and its rich history have fascinated me. Now comes a novel of this river, sometimes, called the Little Amazon, the possible river monster hiding in its depths and the earliest settlement Fort Caroline, quite possibly located on the Altamaha.
Two brothers, Lawton and Hunter Loggins kayak its 137 miles to deposit their father’s ashes at the mouth of this river. What is their story? Can they unravel the mystery of their father’s death? And what of that French expedition in 1564 caught between the North America natives and the Spanish? The narrative is illustrated with drawings that survived that expedition.
It’s not an easy read, nor are the answers to those questions particularly clear, at least to this reader. The text is dense. The rhythm of the stories match the pace of the swirling muddy river. Many sentences paint a picture as clearly as a photograph. “A log juts diagonally from the water, wet-dark, upon which a line of turtles has assembled like friendly tumors, their heads extended into the shafts of sunlight.” It’s tempting to read the book a second time just to attend to all the words, unexpected or hardly understood; and how this writer strings them together in paragraphs as tight and sometimes impenetrable as the swamps. It’s the kind of book that causes a writer to open her notebook and copy down interesting words. Yet each word is to be admired, whether one has ever heard of it or not.
The characters are men. There is crude talk, swearing, fights, bragging in all three of the stories. Every imaginable weapon available in the environment is brandished, often in horrible ways and to bloody outcomes. The author spares no feeling to create his images, no matter how horrific. Yes, they are fighting, always fighting, whether large groups, small groups or in duet.
If you wonder what happened to some of the lost colonies of the first settlers in the Americas, here is your graphic answer. Much of the beauty of the river is lost in darkness of one kind and another.
Many of the published reviewers understood much more of the environment described here than did this reader. I looked up many words, but not enough, or my background is lacking. I never did know that square grouper were marijuana bales. Yet it was a review (I don’t remember which one) that sold me on this book.
Still, I must admit that in attempting to understand the story, what was happening at any point, was often obscured by the darkness of the river, the thickness of the vegetation, and the blindness of all the creeks and marshes. I wasn’t sure it was the same river as the one Janisse Ray had introduced me to in Drifting Into Darien.
Though the story of the men plying the river in 1564 and 1565 was difficult at first, ultimately I found it the most compelling. The artist was a true hero and the book needed that. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer, but to this reader it seemed a dark book, the particulars of the brother’s misunderstandings, the story of their father and the various characters met up with on this river were as if viewed from below the surface of a river black with mud, vegetation, and a history that perhaps would best stay buried among the cypress knees and tangled roots of the trees.