Upon learning a young girl in Tricia Dower’s debut novel Stony River was kept imprisoned with her son, readers might be expecting the story to resemble Emma Donoghue’s Room. They shouldn’t be disappointed when it doesn’t.
In taking the girl and her son out of captivity, Dower shines a light on the late 1950s – a time often romanticized by the golden mists of nostalgia – deftly exposing the darker realities of growing up in a small town during an era when nothing was as it seemed. A time when gossip was just dandy, but a good neighbour minded his or her own business and didn’t get involved. As one character writes in a school essay, “Stony River is the ground asleep under the snow, its secrets imperceptible from behind a thick pane of glass.”
If anything, British Columbia-based Dower’s depiction of postwar family and small-town dysfunction in New Jersey is reminiscent of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies. As in that book, pivotal events in Stony River were inspired by a true crime, as detailed in Dower’s author’s note. In Stony River, however, the true crime is not the inciting event for the novel, but comes later. Dower is expanding on her short story Not Meant to Know, from her collection Silent Girl, in which 12-year-old Linda Wise and 13-year-old Tereza Dobra witness the police leading a girl around their age from Crazy Haggerty’s house. She is holding a baby. Until that moment, everyone in Stony River, N.J., thought the hermit lived alone. The girl is Miranda Haggerty and we learn she has spent almost her entire life locked away from the world.
In Stony River, Dower uses the next seven years of these three girls’ lives to frame her narrative, and is able to weave a considerable number of elements into this ambitious first novel, while rooting it firmly in these realistically depicted characters.
Miranda has led an entirely sheltered life until the police show up at Crazy Haggerty’s house after he dies on the train to New York. She tells the police that James Haggerty was her father, but will not say who fathered her own one-year-old son, Cian. Throughout the novel, she is guided by James’s voice in her head.
“Our way of knowing isn’t wrong … but others fear it and therein lies the danger for us.”
After Miranda and Cian end up in a Catholic orphanage run by nuns, she is forced to examine James’s religious teachings and his actions, as she struggles with her own spiritual path.
Dower is gifted in keeping the various voices distinct, and Miranda’s tendency to filter everything through the books she read while in James’s home – “those whose worlds she naively once believed existed outside their pages” – is especially compelling.
Although she may not be book smart, Tereza has street smarts. Shortly after seeing Miranda leave the Haggerty house, Tereza flees her own home and her abusive stepfather. She knows it’s “best not to waste your hope on things like guardian angels, Saint Bernards and nosy neighbours.” Before she leaves town, she hides out in the Haggerty house and takes something that will change the course of her life.
Comparatively, Linda has the most traditional family life. “Tereza hadn’t spotted a single scab or bruise on those rubber doll arms and legs, but maybe Linda’s old man and lady weren’t as harmless as they looked.” Though Linda doesn’t suffer in the same ways that Miranda and Tereza do, she grapples with her mother’s strange mood swings and disappointment in her father. And Linda knows firsthand that most threats aren’t found at home – a growing concern given the murdered and missing girls around Stony River.
With a less skilled hand, the interweaving story lines and multitude of issues tackled in these pages could have been overwhelming, but Dower artfully layers them throughout. Stony River is a powerful coming-of-age novel, which meticulously evokes time and place, and tackles moral dilemmas, religious dogma, spirituality, sexuality, depression, incest and abuse. It’s rare to find such a polished debut and Dower is a masterful storyteller to watch.
Athena McKenzie is an editor at Zoomer Magazine. She considers the 1980s the dark decade of her own coming of age.