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River of Heaven -
What can I tell her about mistakes, about the things we shouldn’t have done? They’re ours forever. We carry them just under our skin, the scars of our living.
Ripped from the headlines. Lee Martin came across an article in his wife's hometown newspaper about a man who had made his pooch a doghouse that looked like a sailboat, and wondered what sort of person might do that. That was the beginning. The man he imagines is Sam Brady, 65, closeted, lonely living in the town of Mount Gilead. In the bible, Gilead refers to testimony or witness, so someone is gonna be revealing something.

Sam has been carrying a secret inside since 1955. It has to do with the death of his boyhood friend, Dewey Finn. Whatever the surrounding events, it is Sam's journey from secrecy to confession that is at the core of this novel. Turns out Sam is not the only one with a secret in this town.

Brady's life is turned upside down with the discovery of a teenage girl in his yard. Maddie is the granddaughter of Sam's next-door neighbor. Arthur is retired Navy and enjoys peppering his speech with nautical references. He is a widower or recent vintage and his loneliness is palpable. He inserts himself into Sam's life, for good or ill. One good is his input into Sam's plan to build a new doghouse for his beloved basset, Stump. A simple doghouse becomes more of an Arc, and the subject of considerable intrest and admiration. So Sam, having kept mostly to himself most of his life now has not only a new buddy in Arthur, an affection for the lost Maddie,
I don’t know anything about his granddaughter, only that she was nice to Stump and he seemed to take to her, and. Although it surprised me to find her in my side yard, it wasn’t at all an unsettling surprise; it was, if anything, a little wrinkle I didn’t mind. A little zest, Vera would say. A little shazam to give the blah-blah-blah a kick.
strangers stopping by to look at the structure and a reporter from a local paper wanting to write a human interest story about it and about Sam. The reporter is interested in more than the doghouse though, and Sam becomes alarmed that his secret is in danger of being exposed. The world pokes into his life in another way when he sees a report on CNN about a hostage crisis, one in which his older brother, Cal, out of touch for many, many years, is a participant. It is more than merely human company that intrudes on Sam's life. Danger arrives along with his brother.

This book was my introduction to the writing of Lee Martin. He was a Pulitzer finalist for his novel The Bright Forever in 2006, so one makes certain presumptions. I found some of those presumptions to be well-founded and some not so much. The best element of the book was the gentle portrayal of Sam and his cohorts. There is nothing flashy here, no neon in the writing. It is all
Midwestern understatement, contained, controlled, and effective. I was reminded of the writing of Kent Haruf, who also casts his gaze on the lives of some older sorts being upended by the presence of the young. You will definitely feel for Martin's characters. They are so lovingly portrayed. Martin peppers his tale with bits of quirky charm that add to this warmth. The doghouse, of course, Sam dressing his dog in a silly outfit, a few boys skating by Sam's and engaging in goofy banter. There is a lot here about needing, seeking and finding love in various ways.

There is also a layer of danger and violence that mirrors the guilt felt by several of the main characters, entailing content on anti-government militia sorts. I found some elements of this less believable. And there is an execution element that I thought to be just too much. In a high-danger situation, a character interrupts by sleepwalking through. I found this to be not credible, and it disturbed the flow of the story. There were also a few too many coincidences for comfort.

There is considerable content in River of Heaven. Can the entirety of our lives be determined by the choices we make as young people? Does confessing our sins help or just make matters worse?

River of Heaven is a lovely book, with plenty of well-crafted characters, warm-hearted content, some sorrow, some joy and a bit of fun to recommend it, but the flaws kept it from being a top-notch read for me.