Strong characters, plot propel ‘River’s Tale’

Michael Virtanen’s “The River’s Tale” is the story of Alison Reade, who realizes her former boyfriend will not take “no” for an answer and decides the safest place for her is her aunt’s Adirondack cabin. So Alison gathers her belongings, sneaks out of her New York City apartment and rides the Amtrak to Albany, where her eccentric aunt picks her up and drives her to Newcomb. From there they take a boat to the cabin.

Alison used to spend childhood vacations at the cabin, and its isolation and memories provide the security she seeks – separation and safety from Will Palmer, her ex-boyfriend who confuses obsession and stalking with love and romance.

Aunt Lottie, who lives alone with two large dogs, and whose interests and public disputes remind the reader of the late Adirondack author Anne LaBastille, patiently waits for Alison to explain why a well-educated young woman from a wealthy family is hiding on an island at the beginning of the Hudson River. Lottie might be almost a hermit, but she has good people skills and provides the safe harbor Alison needs.

Like many people who came to the Adirondack forest hoping to find a “cure,” Alison wanders the woods near the cabin, looking for a path away from the dangers inherent in her relationship with Will Palmer. Sometimes she carries the bow and arrows she used when she was a child, and Virtanen mentions Diana, the Greek huntress, foreshadowing the violence that cannot be avoided, only postponed.

When Lottie thinks Alison is ready, she encourages her to work for Wallace LaFleur, who runs a rafting operation on the Hudson. LaFleur, 38, is also coming off a broken relationship, so the two of them are wary of giving their hearts away again, and Virtanen describes the romance’s dance steps effectively.

Hearing Alison’s story, LaFleur visits Palmer on Long Island, threatening him and warning him to stay away from Alison. But LaFleur reads river currents better than people, and Palmer and his brother eventually head north, finding Alison and Lottie at the cabin. There Palmer demonstrates his violent possessiveness, and the results are predictably bloody.

As the title, “The River’s Tale,” implies, however, there is another character in this story, and it is the Hudson. From the time she leaves her apartment and travels by train up the Hudson to Albany and through her psychic recuperation with Aunt Lottie, her romance with LaFleur and the final conflict with her ex-boyfriend, the Hudson plays a significant role in this novel. There is even a subplot about a tourist’s drowning death in the Hudson, echoing a recent sad event in the news and also James Dickey’s novel “Deliverance.”

This is Michael Virtanen’s second novel, following his 2007 “Within a Forest Dark.” His books are well-plotted and his characters real. The three major characters in “The River’s Tale” are both familiar and individualized. Alison is not the first woman who has to flee a violent jerk; LaFleur is not the first woodsy philosopher we’ve met; Lottie is not the first isolated, cantankerous naturalist. But Virtanen’s characters are not just types. They are people, and the reader learns to care about them. “The River’s Tale” is like a ride down a river we’ve been on before – providing both familiar sights and surprises around the bend.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.