In Swift River author R. C. Binstock uses the tender, inchoate voice of a young girl to speak for the doomed Swift River Valley in Depression-era Massachusetts. The valley is doomed because the thirsty residents of Boston need water, and the valley – families and farms and factories of long standing – will be inundated when Boston gets its reservoir. The eloquent and plaintive diary entries of Polly form the perfect canvas for witnessing the mounting weight of loss; they are stunning, unforgettable, and captivating. This character and her brave suffering are truly precious inventions, not to be missed.
Swift River shares with Mr. Binstock’s other work a fearless willingness to cite and decry the greedy or rapacious aspects of human nature. As in his well-received Tree of Heaven, Mr. Binstock never fears to plumb the depths or heroics of human nature.
In this book, Polly McPhee of the Swift River Valley in Massachusetts starts a diary as she approaches her 12th birthday. A seeming world away in Boston, the state Legislature passes a law that will destroy her farm, her family, and her way of life. Hers and three other towns will be permanently inundated under a new reservoir so that Boston can have water. Polly’s brief but heartrending diary entries propel the story, along with snippets from other sources. If it isn’t always obvious what or who these other sources are, finding out or already knowing the answer is one of the many sources of delight here. One very powerful device drives a certain narrative energy as well: the author sets up a contrast between Polly’s elegiac diary entries and the ponderous, self-satisfied bureaucratese of how Polly and her family will be ground under the state’s heel.
Polly’s diary entries, which form the book’s main framework, give us a glimpse into a young girl’s mind and heart as her world’s ripped asunder. Loss does form the backdrop for her narrative, but we do see the lively, developing teen and young woman, who blesses the world with her good heart in spite of all the odds stacked against her. In her entries, Mr. Binstock manages unerringly to capture the hope and wonder and fear and daring of this marvelous fictional invention – this Polly.
The lead character carries the narrative forward, obviously, but she does so in a way that’s equal parts endearing and awe-inspiring. She’s forced into adulthood far too quickly, but at the same time sees the beautiful rural landscape of her home valley, the awkward, mostly unwelcome advances of boys, the blessed community of school, the solace of study, the necessity of chores – all of these she faces with a proud and resourceful innocence that place her in the first rank of characters.
I have spent a lot of energy on Swift River’s protagonist, and with good reason. It is with Polly’s development that this novel reaches its highest achievement. By no means let this book pass you by. Unreservedly I add it to my pantheon of masterpieces. Take it up!