Sunday, 7 February 2021

Once Upon a River

Finished February 5
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield


This is a lovely story with some elements of fantasy. It takes place along a river that is both the Thames River in England and not. There are several characters and several storylines that come together.
As the story begins it is Midwinter and in the village of Radcot was an inn called The Swan. Every inn has its specialty and this one was known for its storytelling. The landlady of the inn was Margot Ockwell and the inn had been run by the women of her family for generations. Her married name was Margot Bliss, but the inn always used the old name to keep the tradition. Margot was married to a man who was a storyteller, and who had come to the inn one night from further up the river. His name was Joe. They had numerous daughters, all married and left home and a son Jonathan, who was still not grown and would always live at the inn, being a bit slow and delicate.
On this midwinter night, a figure with a monstrous looking face stumbled in carrying what appeared to be a large doll. They came around him as he dropped and realized that his face was injured and they sent someone for Rita Sunday, the midwife and healer that lived nearby. It was only after some time that they realized the thing they thought was a doll was a young girl, and that she seemed to be dead. 
They laid her carefully in the other room and Rita arrived and did her work on the man, checking him for other injuries and mending him as best she could. There were certain signs on his body that she announced indicated that he was a photographer. A card in his pocket confirmed this. Rita then went to look at the child and while she agreed that the child was dead, something kept her by her side, and then suddenly, the child was no longer dead. At this seeming miracle, she took the child in to the main room of the inn to warm. Shortly thereafter the inn closed for the night and Rita stayed to look after the two patients. 
As word spread of this event through those that had been there, Rita continued to puzzle over the situation, something she would do for many months going forward. 
There were two families that heard of the child that had been found. The Vaughans, who lived in a nearby manor house and were wealthy had their two year old daughter kidnapped two years before, and she would now be about the same age as this child. Mrs. Vaughan has been heartbroken, aching for her child and not engaging with anyone as she had before. As soon as she hears, she rushes to the inn and claims the child upon sight. 
The Armstrongs are a large farming family with an interesting history. Mr Armstrong is a black man who was supported in starting his life as an adult by his own white father. Mrs. Armstrong is a woman with a unique talent for seeing people as they truly are. Their oldest son has been a trial and they recently learned that he was a father and it would seem that this child could be his daughter. 
Another woman Lily also swears that she knows the child, as her younger sister Anne. But the woman has issues and doesn't seem to understand the impossibility of her claim, and she appears to have no desire to take the child herself. 
As the recovered photographer, Henry Daunt, and Rita join forces to look into the matter further and the story continues with interesting sidenotes over the next several months.
As this story developed, and we could see into the feelings of many of the characters, I began to care about their individual lives and stories, wanting things to work out for each one. It was all related to the storytelling in some ways too, as this story is itself. It felt like the kind of tale you'd hear around the fire in past days.
I liked the way that things converged and appreciated the epilogue that took us into the future a ways to see what happened in the near term to the various people. 
A great read.


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