Summer Reads: Stony River by Tricia Dower

Stony River
By Tricia Dower
Penguin Canada

Often portrayed as the era of innocence, the 1950s brought North Americans post-war prosperity, suburban life and the nuclear family, with its clearly defined gender roles. The medium of the day—television—served up squeaky clean characters like June Cleaver, the mother and wife on television’s Leave It To Beaver, a role model to legions of housewives. But as most viewers were aware, made-for-television families had little in common with those living in small towns like Stony River, the setting and title of Tricia Dower’s novel.

In the Author’s Note, Dower describes the 1950s as repressive “when secrets crouched behind closed doors.” In her novel, she shows what goes on behind those doors and unveils the dangers for all young women who came of age in the mid-twentieth century. Based on the actual
killing of a police officer while Dower was in high school and the murderer’s subsequent crimes, the story sheds light on not only the era’s glaring gender inequalities but also the town’s sordid underbelly that is worthy of a film noir.

I love this cover.
Teenaged neighbours Linda Wise and Tereza Dobra spend their time hanging out in the summer smoking “punks” or cattails on the polluted river’s shore. The blond, Linda Wise, comes from a middle-class family and spends her time with the darker-complexioned Tereza, whose household is violent and decidedly working-class. Nevertheless, it is Tereza who snubs Linda for her inexperience.

One hot June day, the two girls are shocked to see a pale teen girl accompanied by police officers
emerge from the home of Crazy Haggerty, the town oddball. Everyone had assumed that Haggerty lived alone. Crazy Haggerty’s relationship to the mysterious shut-in teen, Miranda, is discussed in hushed tones.

Linda, Tereza and Miranda cross paths several years later in connection with a series of heinous sex crimes. But this happens after freewheeling Tereza runs away and play-it-safe Linda slips up. Miranda, however, proves to be exceptionally bright and has special skills, in spite of never completely overcoming her years of isolation.

“Nothing was as it seemed back then,” writes Dower in the Author’s Note, and fleshing out what lurks beneath outward appearances is what Dower does best in Stony River. She’s also adept at creating full, plausible characters. My favourite is the deliciously foul-mouthed, sexually promiscuous Tereza Dobra. Fiction is in dire need of a few good bad girls with agency to shake up those preconceived notions of the 1950s.

There’s also a wonderful infusion of Celtic lore alongside some beautiful writing in Stony River. Dower writes, “James said that if words could be held and tasted and smelled they might be enough to live on.” There is, however, one shortcoming. There are two stories that don’t come together convincingly enough at the end. In fact, I could easily see two solid standalone novels—the Crazy Haggerty and Miranda story and that of Tereza and Linda. The author has taken a step back and incorporated both stories under the broader theme of the town—Stony River.

The theme of rape is central to this tale, and it’s interesting to see just how little we have advanced in 50 years. At trial, the rape victim in this story is made to feel that she isn’t telling the truth, and her credibility is further undermined because of the weight she put on in the aftermath of her assault. After all, no one would ostensibly rape an overweight woman…. Similarly, this week in the news it was reported that one in five Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 believe that “women are responsible for sexual assault because of their actions or appearance,” according to Anu Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

If you’re interested in reading a well-written novel reminiscent in parts of a true crime story, Stony River is worth your while. You may even want to read it after perusing the highly realistic photos of the 1950s photo journalist Weegee (Arthur Fellig) or while listening to a little Patsy Cline.

This review has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

Other reviews of books you might like:
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming
One Good Hustle by Billie Livingston
The World is Moving Around Me by Dany Laferrière
The Return by Dany Laferrière
The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis



Tricia Dower | July 11, 2013 at 12:07 AM

Thanks, Heather. I appreciate your careful read of Stony River. The link to the Zarinsky story is a nice touch.

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