June 03, 2024

Swift River

By Essie Chambers
Review by
Swift River is a mesmerizing account of inherited trauma in a “sundown town,” propelled by the insightful and often-humorous narration of 16-year-old Diamond Newberry, the town’s only Black resident.
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“This isn’t a mystery or a legend,” Diamond Newberry says. “It’s a story about leaving.” She’s the 16-year-old narrator of Essie Chambers’ debut novel, Swift River, a mesmerizing account of inherited trauma in what was once a sundown town, where residents threatened violence towards nonwhite people after sunset. In 1987 in the fictional New England mill town of Swift River, Diamond—the only nonwhite resident—lives with her unemployed white mom. They have been alone since the mysterious disappearance of Diamond’s Black father seven years ago. He was presumably the victim of racial violence, although the town rumor mill churns out sightings of him from time to time.

Diamond and her mother inhabit her deceased grandmother’s decaying house, which may be repossessed at any moment. Now that enough time has passed to have her missing husband declared legally dead, Diamond’s mother is counting on his life insurance money to turn their lives around. Meanwhile, Diamond yearns to escape and is secretly taking driving lessons. She and her mother hitchhike to get around, especially after Diamond, who weighs 298 pounds, allows her bike to be stolen because it had become too difficult to ride.

Diamond feels like a misfit in both society and her family, noting of her maternal lineage, “I am a break in their pure Irish stock; the first Black person, the end of the whites.” Chapters set in 1980 explain the events leading up to her father’s disappearance; at that time Diamond told her father, “You ruined my skin!” Her understanding of his family blossoms when the teenager receives a series of letters from Southern relatives. Black people once ran Swift River’s mills, until escalating racist hostility forced all but one to flee to Georgia during an event that became known as “The Leaving.”

While Diamond may sound like a down-and-out, tragic character, she’s anything but. This gutsy girl has a keen intellect, a beautiful singing voice and an irrepressible, hopeful outlook. Her often-humorous narration is the novel’s central, propelling force. She befriends a white girl, Shelly, and their page-turning misadventures offer sharp insights into friendship, class, racial bias and discrimination, and coming of age.

With finely crafted prose, never a saccharine moment and a plot that skillfully weaves together past and present, Chambers masterfully delivers the message of Swift River: “Our instincts, our deepest intuitions, are really our ancestral memory; our people speaking through us.”

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Swift River

Swift River

By Essie Chambers
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781668027912

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