Every culture, nation, people, town, city, village, school and even neighborhood has it's own myths, legends and folklore. I firmly believe that it comes from our base need, as a species, to tell stories to explain the things about the world around us that scare us. Starmer explores both of these ideas in this brilliantly written book that brings me back to my youth while keeping me grounded in who I am today.
abduction/disappearance is a terrifying thing, both as an adult and as a
child. As a child, from early on, we fear being taken from our parents.
One of my earliest memories is being lost in the woods when I was a kid
on vacation with my grandparents. It still kind of makes me chilly
thinking about it. As an adult, the fear is amplified and much more
intense as we think about our own children. Starmer tackles this
difficult subject by wrapping it in a mythic story that uses just the
right level of intensity, suspense and just plain weirdness as Alistair
Cleary (interesting choice of name, BTW) is asked by his quirky neighbor
Fiona Loomis to write her biography. The tale she weaves is mythic and
Cleary tries to apply common sense to something that doesn't seem to
require any sense at all.
As Alistair spends time with Fiona,
he is left with more questions than answers...but the one answer he gets
is the one that changes him the most. He develops feelings for Fiona
that are deftly handled in a great series of scenes that lampshade the
tropes that this book could have very easily fallen into. For all the
mythic elements of the story, in a lot of ways this is as much
Alistair's story of growth as it is a record of Fiona's story of
Starmer blurs the line between reality and fantasy quite
brilliantly. I'm still not sure if Fiona's whole story is real or just
what she imagined. It's a testament to Starmer as a writer that I'm
still not sure even a day after finishing the book AND reading several
other reviews whether or not the Riverman is "real."
Now, to be
fair, Aaron Starmer and I grew up under very similar circumstances in
the same area of upstate New York at about the same time, so I like him already. I've gotten to
know him a little, well as much as you can via social media, and I like
him even more, so it was easy to root for this book and that fact that
it is so good makes me even happier. He peppers the book with references
to the late 80s that a kid reading this book probably wouldn't get and
Central New York that someone not from this area would completely miss. I
completely enjoyed them.
The Riverman is listed as a MG book,
but I'd recommend it for anyone. It's a quick read that does a nice job
of balancing mystery and suspense with the themes of the importance of
stories to people. And that is what I can take from it as a writer.
In the contemporary YA I've been sort of chiseling away at, the main character is a writer. I'm drawn to stories like that. Grasshopper Jungle was about a writer and I loved that. The movie Almost Famous was about a writer and is one of my favorite movies of all time. People love stories, even stories about stories.
Also, Starmer makes setting as much a part of the story as any writer I've seen. His world building (and yes, even in contemp stories, world building is important) is brilliant. As I said, it's easy to see his inspiration and it works in this story. I've often said that you can tell a story is mine when the setting is very similar to Central New York...even if it takes place in a fantasy world with knights and wizards and dragons. \
Starmer also makes nostalgia viable in this. Sure, most of the 80s references will go over the kids heads, but that doesn't distract from the story. Aaron and I had a Twitter conversation about my desire to write an epic CNY skiing story that takes place in the early 90s. Aaron challenged me to write it. I actually set some planning notes in my notebook for it, but I'm also going to go in a bit of a different direction. After reading this book, it makes me think that it's possible. Fresh off of finishing this and Grasshopper Jungle, I also started writing a very weird story, that like these two books, are going to do two things at once: be a coming of age story and a monster story at the same time. Wish me luck.