River Rising by Athol Dickson

Athol Dickson’s River Rising is one of those books that I very likely wouldn’t have read a few years ago. Before my blogging focus turned to books this novel would not have been on my radar screen. I rarely read Christian fiction. I tend to avoid historical fiction. And I shy away from books that focus on the multicultural obsession of “race, class, and gender.”

River Rising can be described as all of the above, but not in the ways you might think. As I have mentioned a few times before, when I decided I should look into Christian fiction, or fiction from Christian publishing houses, I asked Dave of Faith In Fiction to recommend a few books. Among his recommendations was Madman by Tracy Groot and River Rising.

Having now read River Rising I understand the awards and compliments. It is a novel of grace and power. One that challenges your beliefs and changes your perspective. It is beautifully written and full of suspense. I would heartily recommend it to anyone.

The book is set in Pilotsville, Louisiana, an isolated outpost on the Mississippi River, in 1927; the year of the great Mississippi flood. The central character, the Reverend Hale Poser, was orphaned as a small child. As the book opens he is coming to Pilotsville in search of his parents having found a slip of paper indicating that perhaps this is where he was born.

Pilotsville appears to be a island community in more ways than one. On the surface it appears to be a relatively well adjusted inter-racial community with blacks and whites working and living together in a way inconceivable elsewhere. A rich white benefactor presides over the town and insists on this collegiality.

As is usually the case with a mystery, however, all is not as it seems. The disappearance of a newborn from the hospital where Poser is working sets off an exploration that will reveal the darkest of secrets about the town and its inhabitants. I won’t spoil the plot, as the twists and turns are integral to the novel’s power.

Let me just note, however, a few things I enjoyed about the novel. The first is its exploration of faith and how we perceive God and project our expectations onto Him. In the first section of the book Poser appears to be capable of miracles, or at least unexplainable events seem to happen around him. Dickson creatively and powerfully captures how Poser deals with these events and traces how he ends up being caught up in the belief that he is a “miracle worker.” When Poser is confronted with almost unimaginable evil and oppression he must wrestle with doubt and despair and thus question his relationship with God. Again, Dickson captures this in a deep and affecting way.

This internal struggle with faith and doubt – with finding and understanding our place in the world – isn’t a thinly disguised lecture or sermon but an insightful description of the human condition; of the reality of trying to live out one’s beliefs in the most challenging of circumstances. We see these challenges through Poser’s eyes and so they are true to the character’s nature and work within the novel’s structure. They both challenge the reader to think differently and add suspense and power to the narrative.

The second aspect is a related one. In the search for the missing child Poser stumbles upon what might be called a time warp; a place where progress has stopped and an old, and unspeakably cruel, way of life continues. Some might find this plot device far fetched or implausible, but I felt it worked. In bringing this aspect of the past into physical reality Dickson allows the reader to feel the pain and suffering – to better understand the despair – in a way that couldn’t be achieved in a standard historical narrative. The incongruity and outrageous nature of the situation removes the haze that inevitably surrounds distant events and returns a sharpness to them.

The last thing that I found enjoyable about River Rising is the way Dickson refuses to take the easy way out. As Publishers Weekly pointed out in their review, when the story begins you feel like you are on the path of a standard plot line: “a stranger of humble means comes to a Southern town, scandalizes it and, in true Christ-figure fashion, changes the lives of everyone there forever.” But Dickson soon makes clear that he has no intention of following that well tread path. As noted above, Dickson doesn’t spin out a simple, and syrupy, tale of faith overcoming adversity. Instead, his characters wrestle with faith and doubt and their own failures in deeper and more profound ways.

The same is true of his handling of the race issue. Dickson eschews easy formulas of white guilt and black triumph or tragedy breaking down barriers. Racism and the ugly side of humanity certainly are on display and the community does come together in an important sense. But the characters are complex and multi-faceted. Both sides of the racial divide are in some important sense trapped in a mindset that keeps them separated. Dickson treats his characters as human beings not as symbols or caricatures used to make a point; his prose is descriptive and evocative rather than didactic.

Without getting into the whole what is the purpose of literature debate (or the purpose of Christian fiction), suffice it to say that I found River Rising to be a great read but also one that challenged my thinking and perspective. To me, this isn’t great “Christian fiction” but simply great writing period.

That said, if you are looking for the best in Christan fiction – or if you are just looking for a good read – River Rising is a great choice.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. I wonder when Western literature quit being “Christian fiction?” After Dickens? Is that a question ever considered in university lit classes today?
    At any rate, fiction which offers no acknowledgement of the spiritual dimensions of the human being and his world, is not worthy of my serious reading time. So I guess I have imposed my own definition.
    ‘The moral nature of our world’ is a phrase that would be bitterly condemned by ardent secularists, indeed much of the contemporary intellectual (I do not say artistic) community. Yet David McCullough (whom I love to discuss) and Peter Heather both make reference to that sort of world. History, non fiction history, does not necessarily abandon what modern fiction may have.

    Heather in his ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ wraps us up in a 400 year ride, and, when we slip out of seat at the end of his whirlwind tour, we know much more about our the nature of our making. Our Western world is both bigger and more complex than most of us can or will imagine.

    Our history, contrary to post modern wishes, was not created after World War I. Perhaps the morality Heather imposes is one of scale. How puny we PM’s are against a vast historical backdrop that, like the human being, is too intricately made to be measured and understood as a sum of valueless chances.

  2. I, too, enjoyed River Rising.

    Please accept my invitation to add a link to your review to my Saturday Review of Books round-up. I think this book needs lots of attention so that maybe publishers wil give us more like it.

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