We have two narrators—Howard and Tilly—but Tilly really sets the tone of the story. Howard does little more than introduce us to Tilly and wrap the whole thing up neatly at the end. The last thing Howard says before we time travel into Tilly's story is this:
I wondered how many layers you'd have to scrape away until you came to the time when these old people were young. If they ever were.
I wondered how quiet you'd have to be to hear the voices of those times. (1.51-52)
How quiet? Well, just quiet enough to listen to Tilly talk. Because once she does, she tells the story in a direct, yet emotive, manner. Consider this passage:
The minute Mama heard that the cotton states were seceding, she feared anew for Noah.
Then this month when Little Napoleon Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay, the whole sky darkened. Another week and Lincoln had proclaimed his blockade of the Southern ports. Now he was calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers to fight. (3.8-9)
Tilly is keenly observant—she picks up on her mother's feelings and what triggers them—but she's also relaying facts in an accessible and digestible way. She recounts plainly and clearly what happens, particularly when it comes to the progression of the war. And yet, there's a bit of poetry tucked in here; when she says that "the whole sky darkened," she's speaking in metaphor, conveying a whole lot of feeling (namely, terror and death) amid this recounting of so much fact.
The historical fiction part is fairly self-explanatory: The River Between Us is fiction, and it's set in the past—during the Civil War, to be precise—so it's historical fiction.
YA novels deal with young adults, i.e., teenagers or adolescents, who wrestle with identity and the world around them in some way. We have teens in both eras featured in this book grappling with who they are, where they come from, and who they want to be. In fact, just try not to read about teens while reading this book—it's pretty hard since the adults are all minor players.
And as for war drama, the Civil War is at the heart of this book. It haunts the pages, dragging Noah from home, taking his arm, and creating a very high-stakes setting for Delphine and Calinda, as well as everyone else. If that doesn't make this a war drama, then our name's not Shmoop.
The River Between Us, eh? Not to blow your mind or anything, but there's this river, the Mississippi, and it seems to come between a lot of people in this book. Shocking, we know.
Geographically, the Mississippi River forms the border between Illinois and Missouri (and a lot of other places, of course, but we're concerned with these two). Tilly says, "Even though Tower Rock was over in Missouri, with the river between us, it gave our town its name: Grand Tower" (2.3). Right away then, much as the river divides, it also unites—Tilly's town in Illinois is named after a feature from across the Mississippi.
With Howard Leland Hutchings and his family living over in St. Louis, he's never even met his dad's family on the Illinois side of the river, so the river literally stands between the two narrators, Howard and Tilly. Again, though, we see they come together anyway.
From a historical perspective, the battle Noah fights in is for control of the Mississippi River, which both the North and South need. And, if we look at the flow of the river, it runs between Grand Tower and New Orleans, or between the Pruitt family and Delphine and Calinda. That river is all up in everyone's business. But, most importantly, time and again it unites as much as it divides.
Howard sits on the running board of the Ford Model T touring car. His dad has just told him that Noah and Delphine, not Dr. Hutchings and Tilly, are his grandparents. His dad isn't sure how Howard is going to take finding out that he has African ancestry—but Howard is immediately proud. Phew. The first thing he thinks of is how one day, he'll tell a child of his own about Delphine. Having just immersed himself in the past through Tilly's story, Howard looks to the future, which shows us how connected the two have become in his mind.
Have you checked out the "What's Up With the Title?" section yet? Because now would totally be a good time to do that. Let's just say that just as the river unites more than it divides, as the book ends, the past and the future come together, too.
Thanks to the two narrators and two time periods, we get to deal with more than one setting in this puppy. Let's take it chronologically, though, and look at 1861 first.
We open in the first month of the Civil War, April 1861, in Grand Tower, Illinois, a tiny town on the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois, an area deeply divided along Union/Confederacy lines.
Into this backwoods town come Delphine and Calinda, big-city girls from New Orleans. While some of the action takes place in the town (we use the term generously) of Grand Tower, most occurs in the Pruitts' home, aka the House Astride the Devil's Backbone, which is where we'll return in 1916.
In the middle of a war, however, people don't get to stay in one place, and Tilly is driven from Grand Tower to Cairo, Illinois, by her mother's insistence that she find her soldier brother and bring him home. Noah is in Cairo at Camp Defiance, which is situated, appropriately enough for the larger themes of our story (this book is all about divisions and intersections), at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In the end, the loss of an arm in his first battle gives Noah the freedom to return to Grand Tower with Tilly and Delphine.
More than anything, what matters about the 1861 setting is that our characters find themselves at a cultural intersection in the country and in the heart of the Civil War. Without this, much of the action and big-deal moments (like, say, the revelation that Delphine isn't white) either don't happen or don't hold as much weight.
The second setting is 1916, which, conveniently, happens to also be near the beginning of a war, just prior to the United States' entrance into World War I. Coincidence? We think not. In using a sort of parallel setting, we're asked to consider war and the ways in which it repeats itself.
While Tilly tells Howard her story in 1916, most of Howard's own narration happens on the road. Roads are usually significant, often symbolizing—get this—a journey. There's the literal journey between Grand Tower and St. Louis, yes, but there's also the metaphorical journey Howard takes into understanding himself by finally understanding where his father comes from.
We're dealing with two stories, one set in 1916 and told by one narrator and the other set in 1861 and told by a different narrator. For the most part, though, the stories stay out of each other's way—there's no switching back and forth, for example—but it might take a minute to adjust to each part of the book.
Additionally, Tilly's story is written in mid-19th century rural dialect, which may take some getting used to. Once we figure out when and where we are, though, along with who is speaking, we're rolling down the river like a steamboat—slowly and with a few pauses, but it's generally smooth sailing.
As narrators, both Tilly and Howard are grounded in their particular place and time. Tilly's voice is distinctly from the rural Midwest, her dialect obvious in the way the author transcribes her speech. For instance:
That's the way we done in them days. You was sewed into your underwear in October and didn't see yourself again till late spring. We thought if we got nekkid and washed ourselves in the wintertime, we'd catch a chill that would carry us off. (2.11)
Similarly, Delphine's speech indicates she is from New Orleans. It's sprinkled with French words and syntax that indicate English is her second language, like so:
"Eh bien," she said with a little shrug. "Well, me, I would like to examine the town. Are there shops?" (4.66)
Place matters in this book (more on why over in "Setting"), so it's fitting that the writing style drives this home for readers.
Considering that it's right there in the title, it's no stretch to say that the Mississippi River is the most important symbol in the book. Throughout, the Mississippi giveth and the Mississippi taketh away. It divides people and brings them together, and finally, it becomes a metaphor for time itself, which also divides people and brings them together.
Let's look first at the river as a physical object. This isn't the first book to make use of the Mississippi River, and no wonder. Running from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the river divides the United States and continues to be a major source of transportation to this day. You know what else divides the United States? The Civil War.
Before the book even begins, the river has taken Paw away. He's working the river somewhere, a fate Mama fears will take Noah, too:
Long before people began hollering war, Mama was already afraid she'd lose Noah. Most boys hankered to go on the river. […] What a worry this had always been to Mama. (3.7)
Like the war, the river and its allure are this sort of overwhelming force. Adding to this is the fact that the river is also a major source of anxiety for Cass, whose visions seem to center around bad things that happened on the river centuries ago. The river is vast and ominous and ever-present. But, the river also gives back. After all, it's what brings Delphine and Calinda to Grand Tower.
The battle Noah fights in is for control of the river, a key and contested point during the Civil War because of its value for transportation and control of the states that border it:
It was famous, the Battle of Belmont, Missouri. It sparked the career of General U.S. Grant and led him in time to the White House as President. It was the first struggle for the Mississippi, that great highway flowing between my Grand Tower and Delphine's New Orleans. (13.16)
For Dr. Hutchings, the river comes to have a different meaning, as he operates on a steamboat-turned-hospital ship after the battle. "We were on the boat when I took it," he says of Noah's arm. "I put it overboard. I gave it to the river. […] I gave them all to the river" (13.30-31). Here the river becomes almost god-like, something to be given gifts of human sacrifice. And again, we see its power reinforced.
Later in Tilly's life, the river divides the old people in the House Astride the Devil's Backbone from their son and his family in St. Louis. As Howard notes, Tilly compares time to the river. "She said time was like the Mississippi River. It only flows in one direction. She meant you could never go back. But of course we had. She'd taken me back" (15.37). Looks like the river might not have been quite so big as it's seemed this whole time … just like individual events in life, and even war, diminish in retrospect.
When is a steamboat not a steamboat? When it's a measuring stick for how society's doing. And let's just say that the less steamboating steamboats do in this book, well, the rougher things are in the grand old U.S. of A.
See, steamboats are the life of the Mississippi, and we can follow the course of the war through their fate. In April 1861, the Southern boat that brings Delphine and Calinda to Grand Tower is described as opulently as one of Delphine's dresses:
The Rob Roy blazed with lamplight that lit the water around it. The paddle wheel churned in reverse. The gangplank was already down. I'd never set foot on a big boat. To me a riverboat was a palace. The pair of flaring gold chimney stacks belched flame-colored smoke into the night. Below them the decks glowed like a gingerbread wedding cake. (3.27)
The steamboat reeks of glamour and other lands to Tilly, stopping over just briefly before continuing on its grand adventure. Later, though, steamboat traffic slows as the blockade of the South begins, and steamboats only run from points north of St. Louis. And then, finally, showboats are converted to hospital and troop transport ships. After the Battle of Belmont, Tilly remembers:
We heard music wavering over the water. It was a steam calliope, so one of the warships had once been a showboat. It was playing a funeral dirge, "O Rest in the Lord." The sound of a showboat calliope sending this grieving music on ahead hung ever after in my mind. (13.18)
As the boats change, they mirror society back from the water. And, the reflected picture gets uglier and uglier.
Delphine takes her papa's portrait everywhere. In 1916, Howard even sees it over her deathbed, where Delphine is "propped below a picture on the wall of a man with yellow hair in an old-fashioned costume" (1.47). We have no idea what Delphine's relationship with her father is like, but we do know that the system of plaçage, in which free women of color have relationships with a chosen white man, is very important to her.
This culture is so deeply embedded in Delphine's being, in fact, that she won't even marry Noah, the man she loves, because "she said her kind didn't marry white men. And she was passing for white! She said it would betray all her traditions, said her mother—her maman—would turn over in her grave" (15.35). The portrait, then, is a symbol of where Delphine comes from and serves as an anchor for her in her identity.
The tignon is a stylish headpiece that wraps around the wearer's head rather than sitting on it like a hat. It figures in one major scene in the book:
Cass's wispy hair was tied up in one of Calinda's tignons. It made me smile to see Cass switching her skirts down the stairs like a scrawny, pale reflection of Calinda, including the tignon, tied in a tidy knot. (6.48)
Tilly smiles, but for some reason, Delphine freaks. She rips the tignon off Cass' head and starts yelling at Calinda, while Cass and Tilly are completely befuddled. Delphine chooses not to explain, though, instead only saying, "She has not earned the tignon, your sister!" (6.52) Huh?
Later, we learn that "tignon" is New Orleans slang for a person of color. Delphine says, "I am nearly as white as you, chère. There are others like me paler than yourself, blue-eyed, yellow-haired. Yet as the saying goes, there is a tignon in the family" (12.44). So, a tignon is both something to be earned and a derogatory term.
Without a bit of historical context, which no one in the book really gives, it's hard to understand the significance of the tignon. In 1786, the Spanish governor of New Orleans passed a law that said women of color—whether free or enslaved—had to wear tignons. This was done in particular to keep free women of color in check, to make it crystal clear that they were still second-class citizens. Women pushed back, though, by wearing beautiful and ornate tignons. Ha. And, in this way, the tignon became a symbol of both oppression and pride. (Source) Which explains Delphine's beef with Cass wearing a tignon.
Okay, so we have ourselves two first-person narrators. One's a way bigger player than the other, though, so let's start small and work from there.
Howard narrates the frame story, i.e., the first and last chapters. He tells readers about the summer he traveled to Grand Tower, Illinois, to meet his father's family, saying, "I ought to have kept a journal of the trip, but that's not the way of a fifteen-year-old boy" (1.15). The point of Howard's narration is mostly to set us up for Tilly's story, though. Tilly has to tell her story to someone, and Howard fits the bill.
We get into the meat of the book in Chapter 2 when Tilly takes the reins and doesn't hand them back to Howard until the end of Chapter 14. As she narrates, she also takes us back to 1861, telling Howard (and the reader) about how Delphine became a part of the Pruitt family. While Tilly is definitely a key player in the events of 1861 and narrates them from her perspective, like a good central narrator should, it's part of Tilly's character to turn her lens on those around her rather than dominating the story herself (more on this in her page in the "Characters" section). Thus, she often focuses her tale on others, especially Delphine. Consider this example:
How well I recall Delphine and me coming in from that damp evening, pulling off her bonnets. Calinda, treetop-tall, had her face to the fire and her skirts pinned up under an apron of Mama's. She was browning onions in the biggest skillet. Nearly stuck to her side was Cass, measuring paste out of a jar. (5.60)
Tilly is right in the action, but she lets us know what's going on with others, too. Like, a lot. Thanks, Tilly, for telling the story so thoroughly.
The first chapter sets up the frame story—you know, the one narrated by Howard Leland Hutchings that opens and closes the book. Howard, his dad, and his 5-year-old twin brothers travel from St. Louis to Grand Tower to visit his dad's side of the family, whom the boys have never met. When they get there, they find four really old people in a really old house, which sounds like the start of a nursery rhyme, but we get a Civil War story instead.
The second chapter brings us to the main story, which is narrated by Tilly Pruitt, aka Grandma Tilly, in 1916. Because we're in a new story, we get new exposition. We go back to the Civil War era, where we're introduced to the Pruitt family, including 15-year-old twins Tilly and Noah, 12-year-old Cass (who has disturbing visions), and Mama. Paw is who-knows-where, allegedly working on the river.
Importantly, the Civil War has started at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and President Lincoln's blockade of the Southern states is expected to slow traffic on the river. Meanwhile, many local boys are drilling with militias for one side or the other.
Midway through Chapter 3, things start to pick up. Delphine and Calinda show up and turn the Pruitt family's lives upside down. Meanwhile, Noah intends to join the army, and Cass has terrible visions. The rising action continues through Chapter 11 as Noah leaves and Mama sends Delphine and Tilly to somehow bring home her beloved son. At the end of Chapter 11, Tilly tells us the attack they've been waiting for arrives, and with that, we know we're heading for the climax.
In books that circle around war, war often factors into the climax in a pretty major way. It's just how war rolls, you know? But not so in this book. Instead, Delphine takes center stage, and the climax is the big reveal of the secret she's been hiding: she's a free person of color from New Orleans, and Calinda is her darker-skinned sister—so they're not a white girl and her slave, like everyone's been thinking. The climax, then, is the revelation that while everyone's been looking at the war, Delphine and Calinda have been keeping a giant secret right under their noses.
Now that Delphine's big secret has been revealed, Noah's participation in the Battle of Belmont and subsequent loss of his arm comes across as—dare we say it?—kind of anticlimactic. Chapters 13 and 14 are concerned with Tilly and Delphine's efforts to get Noah home and their discovery of Paw's death on the Confederate side as well as Mama's suicide. For falling action, this definitely feels a bit more like falling apart. But so it goes sometimes as plots settle down.
The resolution of both the main story and the frame story occurs in Chapter 15. Tilly finishes her story, wrapping up the loose ends and explaining what happened to each of the characters. And then, after Howard and his family get back on the road, his dad reveals the final twist—the true identity of his parents—and Howard looks ahead toward the coming war.
Just a heads-up that pop culture during the Civil War is not known for its racial sensitivity, and some of the lyrics to these songs are super offensive.