Genre

Children’s Books, General Fiction

Audience

Ages 8–18

Author’s Worldview

Catholic

Year Published

2019

Themes

Catholicism, suffering, mourning, death, grief, stages of grief, nature, hope, joy, faith, prayer, Mary, saints, rosary, childhood

Reviewed by

Ruby Shao

The death of little Anthony’s father shakes his faith until a heaven-sent friend helps him find his way back to God.

 The soothing power of God, Our Mother, and the saints flows in this coming of age story about a boy startled by grief. Anthony, a 12-year-old only child, enjoys a simple life immersed in nature with his loving father and mother. Devoutly Catholic, the family tends a Rosary Garden, comprised of rose bushes and a tree that dovetails into the shape of a rosary. Though sick, Anthony’s father works with him to install a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary holding the Christ Child in the Rosary Garden, then tells Anthony that they will next build a treehouse together. When Anthony’s father dies, Anthony feels far from God, anguished by the tragedy that has darkened his world. A young man befriends Anthony, helping him heal from his loss and regain his dwindling faith. Ethereal and charming, the novel celebrates the beauty of creation, the renewal of hope, and the redemption of suffering. Catholic readers from eight to 18 years old would benefit from the story.

      Delivered in elegant prose, The River of Life moves slowly until a turning point in Chapter 3, which begins with the inscription, “Arise, give praise in the night, in the beginning of the watches: pour out thy heart like water before the face of the Lord” (Lamentations 2:19). Mourning his father, Anthony shrinks from the familiar comforts of his childhood, now disturbing in the absence of the man who once anchored him. A swirl of agitated fears and questions descends over Anthony. The author describes his struggles authentically, in ways that would resonate with those who have endured similar trials. For instance, Anthony notices the gloomier aspects of whatever he perceives. He expresses ambivalence toward God as he first blames Him, saying, “I prayed so much, but God didn’t hear me,” then chastises himself for perhaps pulling away from God. Fixating on the plans he had with his father, he sinks into sadness about their unfulfillment. His natural response reveals his brokenness, his need for divine comfort, which buoys him throughout the rest of the book. Just as in reality, God sends others to not only accompany Anthony, but also advance his aspirations that he thought had died with his loved one.

      The author often teaches parts of the faith using gems buried throughout the narrative. Upon Anthony’s misplacement of a treasured belonging, his friend identifies Saint Anthony of Padua as “a patron of finding what has been lost” to petition for aid. Depictions of Saint Raphael the Archangel further illuminate the communion of saints. Retrieving the Bible of Anthony’s father, Anthony’s mother tells Anthony that like the prayers of the rosary, the Scriptures will draw Anthony closer to God in a spirit of peace. She gives him the volume, which he presses to his heart. In another scene, Anthony’s mother reminds her son to keep praying for their beloved dead who may remain in purgatory, even if they seemed holy enough to have already reached heaven. As a final example, in gazing at his sketch of the Blessed Mother, Anthony reflects, “She knew more deeply than anyone the sorrow of losing a loved one.” The River of Life provides a gentle stream of lessons that would complement or reinforce the catechesis of youth.

      In conjuring a Catholic aura, two features mar the development of the plot, characters, and dialogue. First, reverence for God’s creation leads to portrayal after portrayal of Anthony in some stunning environment, as he speaks primarily to animals, trees, and other non-human organisms. He rarely interacts with people, and when he does, he addresses only his parents and one new friend. As a result, readers receive a limited view of his psyche, and his monologues or conversations sometimes neglect to drive the story forward. Secondly, Catholic traditions and references abound with few explanations. Much of the action concerns phenomena that only Catholics with knowledge of devotions would grasp. Since almost every significant event alludes to the Church, non-Catholics would probably find the book difficult to understand. Nonetheless, anyone open to learning about Catholicism could appreciate The River of Life’s light and encouragement.

      Ending with a sweet ode to the cyclical bounty of Providence, the novel can inspire children with wonder as a remedy for pain. In the words of Anthony’s mother near the start, “That is the nature of love; it makes suffering more bearable, and when joined with that of Christ, even sacred.” 

 

Subscribe

Subscribe to Catholic Reads to get access to Catholic Literature from 50% off to FREE

A Life Decision by Laurie M. Lamb

When Joe and Peyton find out that their unborn baby may have Down Syndrome, they are faced with a devastating decision.

Beneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles

A young girl goes pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago on behalf of her brother and finds her place in the world.

Freeing Tanner Rose by T.M. Gaouette

Hollywood Starlet meets Kung Fu Country boy with a God obsession.

Please Don’t Feed the Dinosaurs by Corinna Turner

A series of dino adventures that has been doing better what the mainstream Jurassic Park series only recently attempted.

Most Highly Favored Daughter by Janice Palko

Her perfect life hides her city’s darkest secrets. Can Cara face the light of truth and come to understand real love?

Bullet Proof Vestments by Jane Lebak

Fr. Jay left his criminal past behind him, but it’s coming back for vengeance and it might take his parish down with him.

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

A cloistered nun confronts her faith when she realizes that the private revelations she has been given might be the product of epilepsy.

Revelation by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor takes us into the mental experience of one of those people Jesus condemned.

Champion of the Poor: Father Joe Walijewski by Voyage Comics

Meet the priest who spread the love of God in Peru.

The Book of Jotham by Arthur Powers

Experience Christ through the eyes of Jotham, his disabled disciple.

Feel-Good Books For Pandemic Summer

Book Therapy to chase the blues away

Absence by Kaye Park Hinckley

Absence will chill you with the stark reminder that human beings are not just bodies, but souls whose spiritual influence cannot be suppressed, even when the bodies have gone missing.

Shadow in the Dark by Antony Barone Kolenc

An immersive mystery and an amateur sleuth set in the walls of a 12th century English monastery

Finding Grace by Laura Pearl

Amidst the Free-love Women’s-lib culture of the 70’s how can one young girl find her path to sainthood?

The Lion’s Heart by Dena Hunt

A deep, honest story of emotional struggle, temptation, and sacrifice.

The City Mother By Maya Sinha

Motherhood doesn’t come easily, especially when you live in a big city.

Someday by Corinna Turner

Ordinary schoolgirls face a terrible fate: abuse, forced marriages, and even death at the hands of Islamic extremists.

A Distant Prospect by Annette Young

Lucy has been broken by the horrors of polio and the war for Irish Independence. Can Australia offer her a new life and a new home?

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by T.M. Gaouette

A foster kid learns that sometimes the scariest part of life is accepting love.