Review: Redemption on the River by Loren DeShon

Redemption on the River is a first novel by author Loren DeShon.  It’s got some weaknesses but overall I enjoyed it.  It takes place along the Mississippi River from Missouri to New Orleans in 1848.

This is one of those historical novels that really tries to expose you to details you might not have known about – the story describes life on a steamboat, gambling, and the Underground Railroad, and includes a number of not-so-well-known historical figures on the 1800’s South.  DeShon does a nice job of creating atmosphere and setting, as well as a compelling story.

Silas Jacobson lives on a family farm in Missouri when he accidentally causes the death of his father.  He signs over his rights to the farm to his younger brother and sister and heads out without any kind of plan.  Silas’ life changes when he meets a woman whose family is helping slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.

Silas isn’t the most relatable character for most readers – he makes a lot of poor decisions, he’s not book smart, and he loves to punch people.  He’s kind of a guy’s guy.  He has no trouble having sex with prostitutes or drinking away whatever money is in his pocket, and he also has no trouble floating up and down the river doing odd jobs while his brother and sister manage the family farm.

But I do like a main character who isn’t perfect and Silas learns a lot during the course of this book.   He starts out knowing that his father didn’t support slavery but really has no idea what it means to enslave other human beings until he sees it for himself.   And even then he has to learn how to stand up for what’s right and have a real impact, rather than taking impulsive risks.

DeShon imparts a ton of historical detail while also telling a fast-moving, entertaining story.   I liked how the book gave me a good idea of how the Underground Railroad actually worked, as opposed to just knowing what it is.

I occasionally found myself wishing that the story was told from Hannah’s point of view because as a character she’s so much more interesting, and this book is really her story.  Unfortunately, seen through the eyes of Silas she’s somewhat one-dimensional.

The dialogue in the book was not as well-written as the description.  I often found the conversations between the characters a little stilted.  There was something distracting about it that kept me from fully enjoying the book.  For example, Silas’ conversations with Hannah mostly consist of her yelling at him about slavery issues.  His conversations with his siblings seemed forced.  When dialogue is well-written, you don’t notice it, and in this book I did.  I can’t explain why exactly.

I found that the author’s description of the book on Amazon didn’t match my view of the book.  It’s described as:

Silas Jacobson pulled a trigger, killed his father, and ended up months later face down in Memphis mud, trying to forget the girl who betrayed him. He buries his father on the farm, his guilt in himself and leaves home seeking to forget past mistakes. He travels on Mississippi steamboats and meets his best friend in a brawl, his worst enemy in a cathouse, and a mentor and lover at a New Orleans faro table. Fighting, fornicating, and cheating at cards are a grand time, but there’s another woman, a girl on a mission of her own, who saves his life and offers the opportunity to redeem himself. Silas staggers out of the mud to go to her, but he finds that she’s deceived him from the start. He’ll risk his neck for her—he owes her that much—but love is no longer possible. His shot at redemption comes down to his conscience, the two women, a poker game, and the turn of a card. Redemption on the River is historical fiction set along the Mississippi River in 1848.

Rather than a book about a woman’s betrayal, I’d describe it more as a story about a young man coming to terms with the realities of slavery and what it means to be a principled human being.  I liked that Silas’ “redemption” was truly a gradual process; he falls, gets back up, falls again, but learns a little each time.

All in all, a book worth reading for its history and drama, and a nice first novel by DeShon.

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