Title: North River
Author: Pete Hamill
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Henry Strozier
First line: Delaney knew he’d been in the dream before, knew from the hurting whiteness, the icy needles that closed his eyes, the silence, the force of the river wind.
North River is the story of Jim Delaney, an Irish doctor living on the North River in New York City. It is the tail end of the Depression, and Hitler is making moves in Europe that are making all the men who remember World War I all to clearly very nervous. Delaney served in World War I, against the wishes of his wife, Molly. He wasn’t drafted; he didn’t have to go. He went, though, in order to do his duty and serve his country. He returned to an angry wife and a daughter who didn’t know him.
Delaney tried to make up for his absence by spoiling his daughter Grace, which only further enraged his wife. The story picks up two years after Molly has walked away from Delaney. She was last seen heading for North River, and was never seen again, dead or alive. Delaney is left in a kind of limbo, a numbness that keeps him from truly living. He is surviving in the Depression because he owns his house and because some of his patients are former Army buddies who now just happen to be part of the Italian mafia. He is haunted by dreams of his experiences in the war and dreams of his lost wife.
One afternoon, he returns from his house calls to find a stroller in his foyer. The stroller contains his 2-year-old grandson, Carlito. His daughter Grace has left a note explaining that she needs Delaney to take care of Carlito while she goes to find her Mexican revolutionary husband. Delaney is furious with his daughter’s selfishness, but his anger is quickly turned to gentleness as he begins to love his grandson. Carlito shows Delaney how to truly see the world again, how to find the wonder in things, how to feel.
Delaney’s friend Angela sends Rose Verga to help care for the child, a proud, big-hearted Italian woman who opens her heart to Carlito, and to Jim. She has her own history, and these two wounded souls are drawn together over their love for the boy. They begin a tentative romance, but the fears and questions about what will happen when Grace returns for her son, and what happened to Molly, are always there to haunt them.
I listened to North River on audiobook, and for the first fifteen minutes I thought this wasn’t the book for me. The story starts off with Delaney treating one of his mob buddies, and I assumed this would be a Godfather-type mafia book, which I’m not interested in. I was wrong. Hamill’s novel is about this man, this woman, and this child. It’s about learning to let go of the past. It’s about accepting the rotten deal life has handed you and living anyway. And it’s a wonderful and authentic love story, that shows love and attraction in all of its messy, complicated, delicious glory. I adored this book.
Hamill is a gifted wordsmith, and New York is one of the main characters in this novel. His descriptions of the neighborhoods, the people, Delaney’s patients – it is all done with just the right touch, just the right words to help you see what’s happening. I found myself rooting for Jim and Rose, wanting them to be given the happiness they deserve after all the years of pain. I listened to the last fifteen minutes in complete stillness, unfolded laundry forgotten, as I waited to find out their fate.