Crooked River by Valerie Geary is the story of two girls, 15 and 10, the summer following their mother’s death. It’s also a murder mystery with the chief suspect the girl’s estranged father, Bear.
4 out of 10 stars. First, let me say I would never recommend this novel to anyone. It’s a very long novel and most of it is not worth reading. The author took an idea and wound it very loosely around a lot of passages that she probably fell in love with herself but are of no interest to the reader. When an author is so in love with their writing that they forget the story and the reader, they should stop writing. Second, at 323 pages, this story could’ve been told in 20. There are huge gaps in the telling and the story is never finished. Yes, you heard me, the story ends abruptly with no actual ending.
There are no fewer than 30 flashbacks in this novel, so I will simply tell you the backstory. Years ago, Frank McAlister had some alcohol and then foolishly thought he could drive home to his wife and two daughters. He swerved on the road, causing Billy Roth to drive off the icy road and over a cliff with his 9 year old daughter Delilah. Delilah is killed and Billy suffers a brain injury that turns him into a psychopath. Frank is sentenced to two years in prison. Frank and his wife decide never to tell the girls, so their father suddenly goes away with no explanation whatsoever.
Two years later, when Frank is released from prison, he can’t stand to be inside of any building. So he finds an empty pasture behind Zeb and Franny Johnson’s farmhouse and sets up a teepee where he raises seven broods of bee hives. Every August after the oldest daughter Sam turns 7, she goes to spend a month with Frank, whom she calls Bear, in that meadow. He teaches her all about the bees. The police regularly check on Bear, making sure he’s adjusting to civilian life, and the younger daughter, Olivia, stays at home with her mother. That all changes when the mother (whose name is never mentioned) dies (the cause of her death is never mentioned either).
After their mom’s death, Sam (15) and Ollie (10) go to spend three months with Bear in the meadow. If Bear can get a job and live in a house with them, their maternal grandparents will give him custody. Otherwise, in three months they will be moving to Boston. Three days into this summer event, the girls go to the creek to swim and discover a dead woman’s body. When they get back to the teepee, a bloody jacket is in Bear’s satchel. Sam asks Bear about the jacket. He found it in the woods and assumed it was Sam’s. Over the next few days, Sam will begin to suspect that Bear possibly murdered this woman because he has her jacket, the key to her vehicle, and he was gone all night the night she was murdered. At the same time, Travis Roth takes a sudden interest in her.
What’s really going on is that Billy Roth caught a female reporter snooping around town about the death of his daughter Delilah. She discovers that he has made a sculpture using her dead body, so he kills her. His wife and son Travis plant evidence on Bear and around the meadow to make it appear that Bear killed her. So the police arrest Bear and since he feels guilty that all the evidence seems to point his direction, he gives up. He can’t stand being inside and there he is, inside of a jail cell. Sam is equally frustrated trying to prove Bear’s innocence when Bear won’t try himself.
This drags on for 300 very long and boring pages. In the last 20 the entire story is dumped onto the reader. Mrs. Roth and Travis kidnap Ollie and then Sam. Sam sets Ollie free and Billy stabs his own son Travis. Rather than trying to save Travis, Mrs. Roth chases after Sam and Ollie and shoots Sam, then drives her bike into a tree. As the story ends, Sam is on her way to the hospital trying to stay alive. That’s the abrupt ending. Does Bear go to prison? Does Sam live? Does Mrs. Roth go to prison? Does Travis live? No ending here.
There are huge gaping plot holes. (1) Mrs. McAlister’s death is never explained. (2) Ollie sees dead people but the way she describes them sounds like someone high on drugs describing the sky. This part could’ve been written soooo much better. (3) About 80% of the novel is Sam and Ollie trying to find the murderer, but so much time is wasted doing absolutely nothing. (4) The entire story is told in first person through the eyes of Sam and Ollie, a 15 year old and a 10 year old. The author uses words they would never use. Half the time they sound like ignorant hillbillies and the other half they’re using words like sepia, dormer, and other very unusual words. (I didn’t even know what a dormer was. Had to look it up.) (5) Entire chapters are spent on Ollie’s view of the spirits or ghosts who haunt her, but she describes them much the same as Stephenie Meyer describes vampires in Twilight. They sparkle and shimmer and don’t do much else. This is not original or accurate. No fact-checking here. (6) Speaking of fact-checking, the author chose the setting of Terrebonne, Oregon which contrary to the author’s viewpoint, is not right next to Eugene. They are three hours apart. The other descriptions of life in a small Oregon town don’t ring true either. (7) It takes a lot of suspended disbelief to think anyone would allow two little girls to go and live in a field for a summer without electricity, plumbing, or running water. Especially sending them there to live with a recluse who is a former felon. (8) Sam, the 15 year old, talks like an 8 year old. She thinks like an 8 year old too. Ollie, the 10 year old, is smarter than anyone in the entire novel, a real shame since there are so many adults. (9) The real Crooked River is enclosed by rocky cliffs and yet the author describes it as a muddy river with large banks covered in brush. (10) Billy Roth is a taxidermist. To go from doing taxidermy to being an “artist” using his daughter’s stuffed dead body as the focal piece of his sculpture is a leap I don’t really want to see anyone take. And yet this author took it. 🙁
4 out of 10 stars. This was really disappointing for me. I got hooked into the author’s rave reviews which are looking suspiciously paid for right about now.
Reviewed by Colleen.