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Book review: "The River's Tale"

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There's still time this summer to get out the beach books, find an empty Adirondack chair next to a lake, and settle in with a page turner. Betsy Kepes has this review of Michael Virtanen's second novel, The River's Tale.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

A book that’s almost small enough to fit in a pocket is useful to have during the long days of summer, to pull out of a daypack during a break in a hike, or while sitting on a dock. Virtanen’s The River’s Tale satisfies book reviewer Erin Miller’s definition of vacation reading. She writes, “A good beach book is engaging and a quick enough read that you finish most of it before your sunscreen wears off.”

Except that in the case of an Adirondack beach book, you might be able to finish it before you have to re-apply bug repellent. Virtanen’s 150 page book is set along the upper Hudson, and many of the scenes take place on the river. Alison Reade— young and beautiful—flees a stalker boyfriend in New York City and meets a handsome rafting guide, Wallace Lafleur.  She’s intrigued by this mountain man. Virtanen writes: “She still liked men in the abstract, anyway, and wondered if it might not be better to keep them there.”

Of course the relationship becomes much more than abstract as the two paddle down the Hudson and camp together. Beach books do need to have a few sex scenes. The stalker boyfriend shows up and must be dealt with, a couple of times, as he can’t seem to learn a lesson. Alison happens to be an excellent shot with a bow and arrow and Wallace has an impressive-looking pistol.

Virtanen’s writing is easy to read, the chapters are short and he writes of places we know—Newcomb and North Creek, a wedding at the Ausable Club, and the busy scene along the Hudson during the rafting season. His characters are people we’ve met—the river guide who tries to make enough money in the summer to get him through the rest of the year and Alison’s aunt—a misanthrope who lives alone in an old hunting camp, accompanied by a couple of dogs and a rifle. In an action book like this there’s not much time to develop well-rounded characters so it’s helpful that we can imagine them based on people we know.

A second plot involves the drowning death of a rafting trip client. This was one of the more riveting scenes in the book for me, perhaps because of the news last year of  the death of a real rafting customer.  Was the fictional rafter just unlucky when she fell out of the boat and got caught under a submerged tree or did someone want her to be dead? I had high hopes that this might lead to an exciting murder mystery but it had a disappointing conclusion.

Almost every character in The River’s Tale came to the Adirondacks from some other place, drawn by the beauty and isolation. As one character says, “I guess if you belonged in a place like this it wouldn’t matter what you did. As long as you had a way to be here.”

And The River’s Tale is a book that belongs in the Adirondacks, on a table at a summer camp, its pages curling up in the damp, with maybe a bit of sand stuck to its cover. Get out the sunscreen and bug dope and grab the book on your way out the door.

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