A review of Where River Turns to Sky, by Gregg Kleiner (Avon 1996; Perennial paperback 2002).
This novel about aging, life, and death is strangely compelling, a book I could hardly bear to put down when other matters interfered with my reading.
The story is told in alternating chapters by George Castor and Clara Paulson, both mentally active eighty-somethings. George is an Oregon farmer who can do anything and fix anything, or so he believes. Clara is a wheelchair-bound stroke victim confined to a nursing home. She is a former singer and pianist who misses her music, her cigarettes, and her drinks; she can no longer speak, let alone sing.
Both George and Clara are haunted by their pasts: George by memories of his wife's and only son's deaths and his youthful tendencies to flee difficult situations and Clara by sad memories of abandoning her only child, Amy, to be adopted at birth. She never married.
George and Clara meet at the Silver Gardens Nursing Home, where George's dear friend, Ralph, another stroke victim, lies in silence. George promises Ralph that he'll not die alone at Silver Gardens, and visits him often. However, he returns from a short fishing trip to find that Ralph has died and been buried during George's absence.
That unfilled promise fills George with guilt and regret. He decides to atone. George's fantastic scheme to abolish nursing homes in favor of communal living for old folks provokes derisive laughter, but with the help of money he inherited from his dead lawyer son, he follows his dream in a big house, painted bright red with yellow trim to the dismay of his small town neighbors.
Assisted by Grace, an elderly mystic, perhaps a witch, with a fondness for candles, George assembles a motley crew of old people, essentially by raiding Silver Gardens.
The group's adventures and ways of coping defy belief, yet when George develops a baseball field and forms a team of his housemates, when he saws through three floors with a giant power saw to install a primitive elevator for the wheelchair-bound, when he crafts beautiful caskets for everyone, including himself, when he plans and holds his own elaborate wake while he's still alive but fading, the reader laughs in disbelief and cheers him on. Meanwhile, Clara provides a voice of reason about the situation, gradually accepting it and supporting George, her rescuer.
While George's vision of putting nursing homes out of business, replacing them with "farmhouses and apartment buildings, old barns and converted warehouses, all of them painted bright red, all full of people just like us, living together. Living it up" seems fantastic and unattainable, this book and its amazing characters remind us that life is a circle, from birth to death, from river to sky. These are elders to listen to and things to think about.
Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne