This review was originally published in Alexandra Wolfe’s sadly defunct Kissed By Venus magazine. I’m reposting to encourage everyone attending the Golden Crown Literary Society Conference to read this for the Con’s book club reading of River Walker. See you there.
Half way through River Walker I put it down and said , “Damn. I wish I’d written this!”
There. Having confessed my envy I can proceed clean of heart. River Walker deserves no less.
Cultural anthropologist Grady Wrenn relocates from the Pacific Northwest to a little town in New Mexico and straight into a murder spree. Locals blame the killings on “La Llorana”, the legendary ghost that haunts the banks of the Rio Grande, and they accuse Elena Montalvo, the town’s healer, or curandera of aiding the accursed spirit.
Enthralled with the story of La Llorona, Grady’s anthropology students take on the legend for their summer project. What better place to start their research than with the local curandera, smoothing the way for a charming relationship between Elena and “Professor Gringa”.
Though the women are attracted to each other, and approach the attraction each with their own set of matching baggage, the enchantment of the romance lies in how they take the time to feel each other out. They get irritated with each other, then make up, they squabble and are recharmed, just like in real life. There’s a lovely ebb and flow to their courtship, a dance refreshingly healthy and mature. Of itself, River Walker is a delightful romance.
But wait, there’s more. Throw in the cyclic killings of abusive men and you have a tight little mystery. Culpepper has the perfect touch with the murders. They are grave but not gruesome, and are never frivolous or secondary to the story. Indeed, Elena’s life is at stake as the murders increase and the angry townspeople seek a scapegoat.
But wait. There’s yet more. As if a sweet romance and intriguing murder mystery aren’t enough, Culpepper throws in a good, old-fashioned ghost story as Elena, Grady, and her students, all encounter the legendary “river walker” of the Rio Grande.
I have to admit, Culpepper almost lost me in the first chapter. The novel opens with Grady insomniacally prowling a moonlit bank of the Rio Grande, where she not only hears the marrow-leaching cry of La Llorona but sees the nubile young Elena rising naked from a rock in the middle of the river.
Oh great, I thought. Here we go. This is going to be ridiculous. In less talented hands it might have been, but Culpepper gives an implausible series of events a very realistic explanation. She does so throughout the novel, with none of the deux ex machina gimmicks that would be so easy to fall back on in such a story (assuming of course, that one allows for the possibility of ghosts, unseen beings, and things that go inexplicably bump in the night).
Romance, mystery, and ghost story – Culpepper does it all. But ultimately River Walker is a story of faith and grace. The novel’s core is Elena’s relationship and commitment to her god and Grady’s subsequent willingness to trust life, approaching it from her heart rather than her head. While the story is told from Grady’s point of view, Elena’s prayers appear consistently throughout the novel, adding delightful insight into this deeply devout woman’s point of view. Culpepper fashions very down to earth characters, folks I would like to sit down and have a cuppa with. From Grady’s naive grad students to Elena’s quarrelsome mother, each character lends weight to the story. With her deft hand, Culpepper gives just enough academic and professional details to make each character authentic but never enough to bore. Like the ghostly La Llorona, Grady and Elena steadfastly walk the river, each following the path of her faith.