Small towns are miserable places when they let the bullies take control. The bullies are unhappy and yearn for everyone to feel the same. The bullies in The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger openly despise a Japanese immigrant, Native Americans and other minorities. “People who make other people unhappy are generally pretty unhappy themselves,” one character observes. But the opposite holds true, too, that happy people spread happiness.
The characters of Jewel, Minnesota – imperfect like so many people – keep past transgressions a secret. Many of those characters walk along a quiet stretch of the Alabaster River to reflect – the setting for more than one death. That river, tinted brown by day, glows white under the moon, and for one of the narrators, the river is like an old friend.
Lying is often only way protect privacy in small towns. Sheriff Brody Dern invents an out-of-town girlfriend to hide a long-time love affair and keep townspeople from talking. Of course, one lie is never enough, “One lie to kill another,” Brody concedes, understanding that his life is nothing but "a rickety framework of lies.”
Set in 1958, many of the male characters have returned from fighting in World War II and Korea. A young boy asks one veteran about killing and the newspaper editor tries to explain. “In the end, a soldier kills because all the circumstances of a moment drive him to it. It isn’t for freedom or God or for the people back home. It’s because he has no choice but to kill. And in that moment, he’s not thinking of it as a good thing or a bad thing…. And in all that mess , the only thing he wants is for it to end and for him to be alive to see that end.”
Some characters lie for the same reason, to stop questions and survive never-ending scrutiny and incomprehension.
The boy understands the man was trying to communicate a "truth that was essential … of what it was to be a man, to be a soldier,” and he responds politely. But the editor “knew he’d failed in what he’d tried desperately and sincerely to pass down to the boy.”
Most of the imperfect characters find peace though years later they continue to ask what if and wonder why their lives constantly seemed to point in one direction over which they had little control. Some experiences influence a life forever, even for characters who leave town, as suggested by Kent Krueger's beautiful text: “Our lives and the lives of those we love merge to create a river whose current carries us forward from our beginning to our end. Because we are only one part of the whole, the river each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stores we tell about the past. In all of them there is truth, and in all of them a good deal of innocent misremembering.”
Sharing truth about past transgressions with loved ones can soften memories and reduce shame, allowing individuals to push forward and appreciate that their past is behind them.