The River Between Us Summary
It's the summer of 1916, and 15-year-old Howard Leland Hutchings, his father, Dr. William Hutchings, and his 5-year-old twin brothers, Raymond and Earl, make the trip from St. Louis across the Mississippi River to Dr. Hutchings' hometown of Grand Tower, Illinois, in a Ford Model T touring car. They're going to visit Dr. Hutchings' parents and aunt and uncle, who all live together in a house on a hill called the Devil's Backbone. Which, yeah, creepy.
When they get there, Howard's father spends most of his time with his Aunt Delphine, who is bedridden and dying. The little boys hang out with their great-uncle Noah, a dude with one arm who keeps them entertained. It's the perfect family vacation for 5-year-old boys.
Old Dr. Hutchings, who is really old (not just regular old), spends most of his time napping in the sun. So, this leaves Howard to spend his afternoons talking with Tilly, Noah's twin sister, and Old Dr. Hutchings's wife. Howard's visit is the frame story for Tilly's story, and Tilly takes over as narrator for most of the book in order to tell the story of the first year of the Civil War and how all the old people came to live in that house together.
In 1861, the Pruitt family (except Paw, who abandoned them to work on the river) lives in the house on Devil's Backbone. The family consists of Mama, 15-year-old twins Noah and Tilly, and 12-year-old Cass. Into their lives come Delphine Duval and Calinda, two teenagers from New Orleans who mysteriously step off a steamboat and decide to board with the Pruitts.
When Noah goes to war, Mama sends Tilly after him to bring him home, and Delphine goes with her. They find Noah in an army camp in Cairo, Illinois, too sick to fight. As they nurse him, Delphine reveals that Calinda is her sister and that they are gens de couleur, or free people of color, from New Orleans. Women in her society have families and homes with white men but do not marry them, while the white men also have families with their white wives. Afraid that the coming war would destroy their fragile society, their mother sent them north to make new lives. Whoa.
Once he gets better, Noah fights in a single battle and gets shot in the arm. Dr. Hutchings amputates his arm, and the three teenagers return home, only to find that Mama drowned herself in the river when she saw a coffin unloaded on the dock. She thought it was Noah, but it actually turns out to be long-lost Paw, who fought in the same battle on the Confederate side. Dr. Hutchings serves throughout the war as an army doctor and then comes home to marry Tilly.
Howard takes over the narration at the end. Tilly tells him that Delphine and Noah never married, though they lived together all their lives. She tells him she fell in love with Dr. Hutchings through the letters he sent her over the years of war. Aw.
At last, the younger Hutchings head back to St. Louis. On the road, his father tells Howard that Delphine and Noah are actually his parents, but the four old people decided when he was born that he would pass as Dr. Hutchings and Tilly's son. Delphine was afraid people would find out she had African blood and be prejudiced against him. He says that really he had four parents and reveals to Howard that he plans to volunteer as an army doctor if the United States enters the Great War.
The Model T Ford Touring Car: 1916
- The narrator, Howard Leland Hutchings, his father, Dr. William Hutchings, and his 5-year-old twin brothers, Raymond and Earl, pile into the Ford Model T touring car and travel from St. Louis to Grand Tower, Illinois, to visit Dr. Hutchings' family, whom Howard and his brothers have never met.
- Their mom isn't too happy about it and doesn't go.
- They arrive at the house, which is situated on a ridge called the Devil's Backbone (gulp), and there they meet Dr. Hutchings' parents, Grandma Tilly and old Dr. Hutchings, along with his aunt and uncle, Noah Pruitt and Delphine.
- Grandma Tilly and great-uncle Noah are twins. And also, in case it wasn't crystal clear, yes, everyone in this house is super old.
The House Astride the Devil's Backbone: 1861
- Imagine those wavy lines on late-20th century sitcoms that indicate a flashback is about to happen. With only the heading above for warning, Tilly Pruitt takes over the narration, and she's not about to give it up anytime soon.
- Tilly takes us back to April 1861, shortly after Abraham Lincoln is elected president. All over the Southern Illinois town of Grand Tower, boys are taking sides and drilling in preparation for military service for the North or the South. (Spoiler alert: the Civil War is coming.)
- Tilly's more immediate problem, though, is her sister Cass, who has visions—and not of sugarplums.
- Mama sends Tilly out to round up Cass, who is sitting on a rock overlooking the river. Her regularly scheduled visions of tragedies that happened hundreds of years ago have been interrupted by visions of things that haven't happened yet, specifically boys in blue and gray torn to pieces by war.
- Perhaps this is needless to say, but Cass is in bad shape.
- On the way home, the girls run into their brother, Noah, Tilly's twin, who's on his way home from drilling practice for the North.
- Cass takes one look at Noah and bursts into tears. If we know anything about foreshadowing, we know things aren't looking good for Noah.
- The Pruitts eat dinner and head off to the first big gathering of the spring season, a dance over at Rodgers's store.
- In the middle of the dance, word comes that a steamboat is at the landing. It's a big deal because the Union blockade of the Southern states is just taking effect, and the town depends on traffic and goods that come on the river.
- T.W. Jenkins, who owns the other store, sends his employees, including Noah, to unload the boat.
- The whole town follows along because a boat is a really big deal. Yeah, not a lot happens in Grand Tower.
- The town is enthralled with the sight of a beautiful and elaborately dressed young woman coming down the plank.
- Delphine Duval announces that she and her companion, Calinda, a young woman with dark skin, intended to travel to her aunt, Madame Blanche Leblanc, in St. Louis but feel it is too dangerous to go further up the river after they were insulted at the last stop in Cairo (that would be Illinois, not Egypt—the Mississippi River is not that long).
- She asks for a hotel, but Mama steps in and invites her to stay with them since the hotel in Grand Tower wouldn't exactly get rave reviews on Yelp.
- Delphine announces that she will pay board for herself and Calinda, and the Pruitts head home with them, everyone's head spinning a little.
- Delphine and Calinda settle into the Pruitts' spare bedroom.
- The next morning, Mama sneaks into Tilly's room to tell her to be wary—she thinks something's up with the new girls.
- While Mama and Tilly fix breakfast, Cass yells that Calinda is killing Delphine. It turns out she's just lacing her into her corsets, which does indeed sound like torture, but Delphine is a voluntary victim.
- While everyone eats breakfast, Mama asks about sending messages to Delphine's mother and aunt, which seems to surprise Delphine a little before she distracts them all with stories about the magnificence of her beautiful mother, Clemence Duval.
- Then, she announces that she wants to go shopping, like you do in a backwoods river town.
- After Delphine and Calinda spend the morning unpacking, Tilly takes Delphine shopping in town.
- Though Delphine makes quite an impression on the men of the town, the shops don't impress her much.
- She orders oil lamps and matches to be delivered to the Pruitts' house, which seems extravagant to everyone.
- Later, Tilly and Delphine climb the Devil's Footstool, a relatively low rock that looks out over the river. Tilly tells Delphine about her concerns about Cass, and Delphine tells Tilly about her parents.
- When they get back to the house, they find Calinda cooking jambalaya, a classic New Orleans recipe. Yum.
- The family sits up late into the night enjoying the new oil lamps and Delphine's and Calinda's company.
- Noah especially enjoys Delphine's company, if you know what we mean.
- As summer arrives, Delphine and Calinda settle into Grand Tower, constantly receiving care packages full of food and clothes and luxuries from Delphine's mom down in New Orleans.
- Madame Duval sends Mama a beautiful green dress, which Mama promptly puts in the death drawer to be buried in. Yeah, these Pruitts are really fun people.
- Calinda and Cass grow closer, with Cass helping Calinda with her new business selling pralines to people at the steamboat landing.
- As the war moves closer, Cass has a terrifying vision, and Curry Marshall leaves town to join the Confederates, leaving Tilly his spelling ribbons. Apparently, giving someone your spelling ribbons was romantic back in the day.
- Eventually, the blockade stops ships from coming up from New Orleans, so Calinda and Delphine are stuck there.
- Calinda does Cass' hair up in a tignon like hers, and Delphine loses it, ripping the tignon off Cass' head and screaming at Calinda. No one gets why.
- After news comes of the North's defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, everyone in town supports the Union cause. Defeat wins supporters, we guess.
- Delphine can't seem to help standing out in a town like Grand Tower.
- The attention the men pay Delphine irks some of the women, and three of them climb the hill to the Pruitts' house to make their feelings known. Oh, good…
- After they insult Mama, accuse Delphine and Calinda of being spies, and talk about how inappropriate it is for Noah to live under the same roof as Delphine, Mama orders them out of her house.
- Delphine comes home excited about a showboat that's coming to town, and Noah comes home angry at the rumors swirling about Delphine.
- The Pruitt family prepares to go see the showboat show and dance.
- Calinda and Delphine dress up Cass and Tilly in Delphine's clothes and put combs in Mama's hair.
- On the showboat, they listen to music, see a play about Abe Lincoln, and watch a minstrel show.
- When the stage is cleared for dancing, Noah waltzes with Delphine while Dr. Hutchings dances with Tilly.
- One of the fiddlers recognizes Calinda from New Orleans and convinces her to dance the Calinda. See, as it turns out, Calinda's real name is CoinCoin, but she earned herself a nickname by being the best Calinda dancer in New Orleans.
- At the end of the chapter, we skip to September, when Noah leaves for the war the day after his and Tilly's 16th birthday.
- Noah's letters from Camp Dunlap, up by Jacksonville, tell of an army laid low by dysentery, with no uniforms or weapons. Fun times.
- Later, Dr. Hutchings volunteers as a doctor at Camp Defiance in Cairo, where Noah's regiment is sent.
- He keeps the town posted, though not with good news—half the soldiers in Cairo are down with the measles and the other half are drunk.
- One night, Mama goes mad with fear for Noah.
- Tilly hears something in the kitchen and gets up to investigate. She finds Mama, who in turn orders her to find Noah and bring him home.
- Though she tries to argue that the army won't let her have Noah even if she can find him, Mama won't hear of it; she's a completely changed woman.
- Calinda comes down, too, and immediately starts making cures to pack. She tells Tilly she will stay behind while Delphine heads off with her to find Noah.
- The girls prepare to leave for several days, making tons of food to carry and packing medicines, quilts, and all of Delphine's clothes, which she can't do without, not even in the middle of a war.
- The night before they leave, Calinda reads her cards, refusing to let anyone else see, though she tells Delphine something. Huh…
- Delphine and Tilly take the train from Carbondale to Cairo in Southern Illinois.
- Dr. Hutchings meets them at the station in Cairo and gets them set up in a boarding house run by a widow named Mrs. Hanrahan. There's no place for them to stay but a summer kitchen out back.
- Next, Dr. Hutchings takes them to Camp Defiance to see Noah, who is sick with dysentery and yet in the best shape of anybody in his tent. Yikes.
- Camp Defiance is not exactly a five-star resort. Two of the walls are earthworks that back up to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and most of the camp is mired in mud and filth; soldiers everywhere are sick with measles and dysentery. It's rough stuff.
- Dr. Hutchings wants Tilly and Delphine to wait to see if Noah feels up to coming out of his tent (otherwise known as a "regimental hospital") to see them, but they just barge right on in.
- Noah, the least sick of the men in his tent, is the "nurse" to the rest of them and the only one not lying in pools of his own filth. Yikes.
- He manages to eat a lot of the food they bring, and Tilly notices that he's studying military tactics, still intent on fighting though he can barely stand.
- Delphine spends the ride back to Mrs. Hanrahan's bending Dr. Hutchings' ear about everything that needs to be done to help the soldiers recover, including the camp passes she and Tilly will need every day.
- Sure enough, Tilly and Delphine go to Camp Defiance every day to nurse soldiers, cook their food, and launder their clothes. They also hold a few while they're dying—not of bullets, but of measles and dysentery.
- When Noah gets well enough, he's taken to train and issued a new-to-him (but definitely pre-owned) firearm and uniform.
- The war is creeping nearer and nearer.
- About a week after Tilly and Delphine move in, Mrs. Hanrahan comes to see how they're settling in.
- She realizes what no one else has: Delphine is one of the gens de couleur, or free people of color, of New Orleans.
- To say Mrs. Hanrahan is racist is a bit of an understatement. However, she's not quite racist enough to take Delphine up on her offer to leave; she still wants Delphine's rent money.
- We pause to bring you a historical note on color and race in the 19th century. It's not all black and white, to say the least. See, Mrs. Hanrahan has probably dealt with her share of racism against the Irish, who immigrated to the United States in large numbers due to the Irish Potato Famine. In the North, Irish immigrants often competed with free people of color for a limited number of jobs, which led to resentment and negative feelings between these groups. You'd think discrimination would lead oppressed groups to work together, but as Tilly puts it, "people aren't made that way" (6.59).
- After Mrs. Hanrahan leaves, Tilly asks Delphine to tell her and Dr. Hutchings her real story.
- Delphine explains that she is a femme de couleur libre, or a free woman of color. She and the other women in her family are part of a system called plaçage.
- Since her grandmother's day, each generation has groomed its girls to have a relationship—but not a marriage—with a wealthy white man who provides for them. These men usually have two families, a traditional white family and a family of color.
- Delphine's mother knows that the coming war will destroy the delicate racial balance that makes this system possible, so she sent Delphine north to safety, where she will be able to pass as a white woman, or at the very least maintain her freedom.
- Delphine reveals that Calinda is her sister.
- Noah, Delphine, and Tilly have their picture made in Cairo right before Noah goes into battle.
- Dr. Hutchings joins the army as a captain and doctor.
- Noah and the rest of the Thirty-First Illinois regiment march and/or sail away to fight for control of the river, while Delphine, Tilly, and the rest of Cairo stay behind and wait.
- Finally, the steamships return, carrying the wounded of the Battle of Belmont.
- Dr. Hutchings finds Tilly and brings Noah to her.
- Noah is missing his left arm, which Dr. Hutchings amputated and dropped overboard.
- Because Noah will never be able to fight again, he is out of the army.
- Tilly and Delphine take him to Mrs. Hanrahan's to nurse him until he is well enough to travel.
- Tilly is afraid to send a letter home until she's sure Noah will live. Delphine tells her Calinda would not believe he's alive anyway, though, because she had a vision of a coffin coming up the river. You know, just in case we were starting to get comfortable.
- While Tilly and Delphine wait for Noah to revive, Tilly asks Delphine about her family.
- She learns that Delphine's father, Jules Duval, has five children in his white family, and that Delphine and Calinda have a brother, Andre, who is being educated in Paris and will stay in France since race is not such a big deal there.
- While Delphine was expected to find a white man to have a relationship with, their mother has always intended for Calinda to take care of herself with her prophecy skills.
- Calinda has foreseen that the South will lose the war.
- When Noah revives, Tilly and Delphine take him home on the train.
- When they finally arrive, though, something is wrong—Cass looks bad, and Calinda is wearing a black tignon.
- Cass takes Noah and Tilly to the garden shed while Delphine joins Calinda in the house.
- The coffin in the garden shed contains the remains of Paw, who fought for the Confederate side in the same battle Noah lost his arm in. It was his coffin Calinda saw in the cards.
- Tilly tells them that Mama thought the coffin was Noah's, though, and she ran out and drowned herself in the river before they could stop her.
Time and the Mississippi River
- We're back in 1916, and Tilly, now "Grandma Tilly," has been telling Howard this story while Raymond and Earl hang out with great-uncle Noah, their dad hangs out with great-aunt Delphine, and Dr. Hutchings naps. We like Dr. Hutchings' plan best.
- Grandma Tilly reveals that Delphine never did marry Noah due to the traditions of her people, and Cass died of diphtheria in 1866 after Calinda left to make a new life in California.
- At the end of the week, the younger Hutchings say their goodbyes and head out on the road toward St. Louis.
- On the first night, while the twins sleep, Howard's dad reveals that he's thinking about joining the army as a doctor if the United States gets into the war in Europe.
- He also reveals that Noah and Delphine are his parents. Delphine was afraid someone would find out her background and hold it against her son, so they always pretended he was Dr. Hutchings and Tilly's child. Ah…
- Like his dad, Howard feels proud of every part of his background.