River of Heaven

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Published by: Three Rivers Press; Reprint edition
Release Date: April 7, 2009
Pages: 288
ISBN13: 978-0307381255


“You have to know the rest of my story, the
part I can’t yet bring myself to say. A story
of a boy I knew a long time ago and a
brother I loved and then lost.”

Past and present collide in Lee Martin’s highly anticipated novel of a man, his brother, and the dark secret that both connects and divides them. Haunting and beautifully wrought, River of Heaven weaves a story of love and loss, confession and redemption, and the mystery buried with a boy named Dewey Finn.

On an April evening in 1955, Dewey died on the railroad tracks outside Mt. Gilead, Illinois, and the mystery of his death still confounds the people of this small town.

River of Heaven begins some fifty years later and centers on the story of Dewey’s boyhood friend Sam Brady, whose solitary adult life is much formed by what really went on in the days leading up to that evening at the tracks. It’s a story he’d do anything to keep from telling, but when his brother, Cal, returns to Mt. Gilead after decades of self-exile, it threatens to come to the surface.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Bright Forever, Lee Martin masterfully conveys, with a voice that is at once distinct and lyrical, one man’s struggle to come to terms with the outcome of his life. Powerful and captivating, River of Heaven is about the high cost of living a lie, the chains that bind us to our past, and the obligations we have to those we love.

“Graceful, evocative.”
—Chicago Sun-Times

“One part domestic novel, one part confession, and one part thriller…This novel is about the toll living takes on our skin and our soul.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“If you don’t know Lee Martin, you should….[River of Heaven] is a page-turner, both tender and tough, with real insight into how people live and breathe and love and worry.”
—Lincoln Journal Star

“Intricately plotted…Martin is an able storyteller who doesn’t need to resort to flashy verbal tricks to establish his credibility as a writer of literary fiction. In Riverof Heaven, he’s created an accomplished and deeply satisfying work.”

“Martin crafts eloquent sentences.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Lee Martin’s portrait of Sam Brady, a man in fear of his life and crippled by it, lingers painfully and persuasively.”
—Amy Bloom, author of Away

“Sam Brady, sixty-five, has kept a secret for half a century. ‘We can’t tell,’ his brother decides for him, and Sam doesn’t, but the cost of his silence has been profound. Few writers could unfold Sam’s history with the grace and compassion of Lee Martin. River of Heaven is an unusual novel, wise and humane, a story of cowardice and courage and the tortuous passage between them.”
—Kathryn Harrison

“In River of Heaven, Lee Martin has created that rare thing: a literary page-turner. This is a story about the corrosive power of a childhood secret, and the way our lives are shaped as much by what we withhold as what we reveal. An elegantly structured, powerful and original novel, full of heart.”
—Dani Shapiro, author of Black & White

Reading Guide
1. What prompts Sam to build a doghouse in the shape of a ship for Stump? Why does Arthur decide to help?

2. When Duncan Hines, reporter for the local Daily Mail, shows up to take pictures of the doghouse, how does this begin to change Sam’s life?

3. After watching the television news report to see the hostage situation at the grain elevator, and knowing his brother is held up at gunpoint inside, what is Sam’s initial reaction? Why do you think he says he’ll “wait it out” rather than go to his brother?

4. Why, after all these years of self-imposed isolation, does Sam seem to welcome company, even yearn for it?

5. What does Sam find at the yard sale? Explain its significance in the story. Do you think there is a greater symbolism to it?

6. In Chapter 4, Sam reminisces about the last thing his brother said to him before their long estrangement: “I guess we all have to live the lives we’ve made, but I don’t think I can live mine here, not now.” Do you think Sam has lived the life he’s made? Why did he choose to stay in Mt. Gilead?

7. When Sam first goes with Arthur to the Seasoned Chefs, he says, “I wish I could trust this feeling I have, this thing rising up in me I can only call joy.” Why can’t Sam trust this feeling?

8. Each of the main characters—Sam, Arthur, Maddie, and Vera—has experienced some type of loss. Name them and how each has coped.

9. Why does Arthur lie about Maddie’s mother, saying she’s a methamphetamine user when, in fact, she died of AIDS?

10. Explain the friendship between Sam and his neighbor, Arthur. What does Sam get out of it? How does Arthur view Sammy?

11. At various points in the novel Arthur reminds Sam that he doesn’t know much about family and true love. Why does Arthur feel the need to say those things to Sam? Does he mean to be hurtful?

12. Name the present-day moments throughout the novel that bring up memories of Dewey Finn for both Sam and Cal.

13. Sam tells Vera that he likes the idea of Maddie living with him. How does he feel about her eventually returning to her grandfather?

14. Sam has spent much time thinking about the past. Do you think he has ever contemplated the future? How far ahead does he think?

15. What do you suspect Cal has been doing with himself since the death of Dewey Finn and leaving home to join the Army?

16. After Cal explains the reason he had the drawn-up map of Chicago, Sam goes to bed and has a very profound and significant dream. What happens in it? What does Sam think it means? What is your interpretation?

17. What is the River of Heaven? Do you think it is an appropriate title for the novel?

18. On page 159, Sam says that his father, in 1959, “had no idea how far love could reach.” Does Sam have any idea himself?

19. Cal says to Sam, on page 165, “You’re a good man, Sammy. You always have been.” What does this do for Sam?

20. When Cal pulls up in his truck after searching for Stump, what does Sam shout to him? What does Cal do? Why does Sam choose to tell him?

21. When Cal finally reveals that he was part of the militia, how much of his story does Sam believe?

22. On pages 228 and 229, Arthur realizes that “We touch the world . . . and sooner or later the world touches back.” What does he mean by this? How has the world touched back at him?

23. What was the final story on Cal’s involvement with Herbert Zwilling? Why do you think the FBI investigator would rather have this explanation over the plans to blow up the Sears Tower?

24. Upon learning that Cal has died, what is Sam’s reaction?

25. Do you think there was a real chance for Sam to save Dewey?

26. What do you think Vera’s and Maddie’s reactions to Sam’s confession will be? How about Nancy Finn? Do you think she’s had a long suspicion that he was somehow involved in Dewey’s death?

27. What has finally telling his story about the night Dewey died done for Sam?


This evening toward dusk my neighbor, Arthur Pope, strides across the driveways that separate our houses, a casserole dish held between his hands. I see him through the kitchen window as I stand at the sink opening a can of Natural Balance duck and potato for my basset hound, Stump. I reach to switch off the light, but, too late, Arthur has spotted me—I can tell by the way he lifts the casserole dish higher, extends it with his oven-mitt covered hands—and I have no choice but to wave at him and then go out into my side yard and open the gate.

“Ahoy, neighbor.” A former Navy man, this is the way he talks. Unlike me, he’s kept fit over the years. He still does calisthenics, even keeps a barbell set in his basement—a manly man with chest and shoulders and arms that aren’t what they were thirty years ago, but still they’re impressive. A thick head of wavy gray hair. A bounce to his step. “Time for mess.” He bows his head over the casserole dish and sniffs. “Andouille jambalaya,” he says. “Permission requested to come aboard, sir.”

It’s October, and the leaves have started to fall. Here in Mt. Gilead, our small town in southern Illinois, we can burn them on Saturdays, air quality and the ozone layer be damned. We rake our leaves to the sides of our streets or onto our back yard gardens, and set them to burn. The air smells of the must and the smoke the way it has this time of year as long as I can recall since I was a kid in Rat Town—that’s what we’ve always called the neighborhood in the lowlands on the south edge of Mt. Gilead, a mess of tumble down houses. Each spring there, when the Wabash River rises, the floodwaters still come up to the doorsteps. I’m glad to be safe and dry here in Orchard Farms, this modest gathering of ranch homes on streets with names like Apple Blossom and Cherry Blossom and Peach Tree.

Arthur thinks he knows my life—me, Sam Brady, a bachelor all my sixty-five years—and I wish I could believe that he does. He thinks he knows it because his dear wife, Bess, is now six months gone, and he imagines that we share the misery of men living alone. “You and me,” he said once not long after she died. He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Jesus, Sammy. We’re a pair.”

But my life is not his. I’d tell him this if I had the heart. I’d tell him I have no idea what it is to love someone all that time—nearly forty years he and Bess were married—and to lose them one day without warning. An aneurysm in her brain. “Arthur, my head hurts,” she said, and then the next instant, she fell to the kitchen floor, already gone. All my adult life I’ve lived alone, except for the dogs, the latest being Stump, who stands now at the screen door waiting for his duck and potato.

“He gets contentious,” I tell Arthur, nodding toward Stump. Nothing could be further from the truth; like all basset hounds, Stump is long on patience, steadfast with his devotion, mild-tempered, and affectionate—a perfect companion. His nose is up against the storm door glass. His velvety ears hang in loose folds, their ends curling slightly inward. He stares at me with his sad-ass eyes. “Stump,” I say to Arthur. “He puts the hurt in me if he doesn’t get his grub.”

“Don’t we all.” Arthur lifts the casserole dish toward my nose. “Sailor, don’t we all.”

What can I do but let him into my house and tell him to set the casserole dish on the range? He tells me exactly how he made it, and I know what’s coming next. “I could give you the recipe.” He snaps his fingers. “Or you could come on down to the Senior Center—that’s the ticket—and, Sammy, you could learn to do for yourself.”

It’s not the first time he’s asked. He’s learned to cook by joining a widowers’ group—the Seasoned Chefs—and every Wednesday evening he goes downtown to the Senior Center and works up a new dish. But me? “Sorry, Arthur,” I tell him. “No can do.”

For a moment, I’m tempted—I’ll admit that—but then I think of myself trying to make conversation with all those men, widowers who have a genuine right to their loneliness, and I can’t imagine it. You see, I’m a man who chooses to be alone, a man who has a secret. I’m a closet auntie, a fag, a queer—you know all the words. Here in Mt. Gilead, even this day and age when the world is supposed to be more tolerant, more accepting, it’s clear that many folks think this is a wrong thing to be. I see the graffiti spray-painted on the sides of garbage dumpsters along alleys, on the bathroom walls at the city park, on the Salvation Army collection bins in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Those words. I hear them on the lips of school boys and cocksure young men swaggering around the Town and Country Lanes, where I sometimes bowl a few lines, even from people like Arthur, older men who still believe that naming something they fear puts it in a place where it can’t hurt them. I’ve heard them all my life, these words. I’ve let them, for better or worse, make me a cautious man, on guard, well aware that danger always waits just around the corner.