Study Guide

The River Between Us Themes

By Richard Peck

  • Warfare

    We can't overestimate how huge the theme of warfare is in this book. The Civil War is the reason everything happens. It's why Calinda and Delphine go north, Noah loses his arm, Mama goes mad, and more. And, not only do we deal with the Civil War in the main story, we also deal with World War I in the frame story—the two wars help connect the two stories. Whoa.

    War in The River Between Us is a personal thing that affects the lives of individuals. The book isn't concerned with vast armies waging epic battles but instead with two girls who are forced from their home, a boy who loses his arm, a sister who brings her wounded brother home from battle, a doctor who leaves civilian life to operate on a converted riverboat, and a mother who loses her mind with grief.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Illinois is typically thought of as a Union state. Why is most of Southern Illinois for the South?
    2. Does the war symbolize other issues the characters face? If so, how?
    3. How do different characters respond to the possibility, and then the reality, of war? What does this tell you about war as a theme in this book? Remember to give evidence from the text.
    4. Why doesn't Mama wait to find out who's in the coffin before she drowns herself? (Seriously—this one really bothers us.)

    Chew on This

    Tilly tells Howard her story in order to prepare him for the war that's about to come into his life.

    Tilly experiences the war as a series of periods of waiting.

  • Lies and Deceit

    As Tilly points out often in The River Between Us, Delphine is a master of deceit, though not exactly of lying. She never lies at all—well, except that one time about her nonexistent aunt in St. Louis—she just tells so much truth that we never notice all the things she's not saying. It's like a sleight of hand trick; Delphine keeps our eyes where she wants them so we don't suspect her of hiding a thing.

    It's not Delphine's fault that she has to deceive the Pruitt family about the truth of who she and Calinda are (namely, free people of color). The girls are in a tight spot and need to find somewhere safe. After we find out the sisters' true identities as the children of Jules Duval and Clemence Duval, a free woman of color, we think we know it all. But, we don't. There's one more curtain to be pulled back, and it's the big reveal about which of the old ladies in the house is truly Howard's grandmother.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What's the biggest lie any character tells? Why do they tell it, and what makes this lie bigger than all the rest?
    2. How is deceit different from lying in The River Between Us? Be specific, and push yourself to go beyond just Delphine's character, if possible.
    3. Are lies and deception a force for harm or for good in this book? Give evidence from the text to back up your point.

    Chew on This

    Delphine's character is formed by her need to conceal the truth of her identity.

    Pretty much everyone in the book eventually is drawn into Delphine's web of concealment.

  • Gender

    It's fair to say that gender often comes up in books about war. Historically, men's and women's experiences of war have been very different. And, because men have historically been in charge of politics and diplomacy and military action, women have often seen war as a decision of men … or their fault. Whichever way you want to look at it.

    The River Between Us is no different. Our main girl, Tilly, definitely feels this way. She thinks war is awful, and men, especially her brother, Noah, are crazy for wanting any part of it. Another element of gender appears here, too: Delphine's role as a highly sexualized woman who's essentially been trained to seduce men. The book deals less with gender as it relates to sexuality than with gender as it relates to war, but it's there. And with Delphine on the page, you can't miss it.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Who do you think has it better, Delphine and Calinda or their brother, Andre? Why? Be specific and dig into the text.
    2. Why does Mama value Noah more highly than Tilly?
    3. According to the book, what different roles do men and women play in war? Do you notice any patterns? If so, what do they reveal about gender and war?

    Chew on This

    Mama values Noah more highly than Tilly because he's a boy.

    None of the women in the book think men are capable of taking care of themselves.

  • Race

    By the end of The River Between Us, race turns out to be a much bigger deal than we thought it was at the beginning. Not only do racial issues force Delphine and Calinda upriver from New Orleans, but racial identity turns out to be at the heart of the personal understanding Howard feels he lacks because he doesn't know his father's family. The novel is concerned with how race and skin color affect personal freedom and choices. This is as true of Howard's father, and Howard himself, as it is of Delphine and Calinda. Ultimately, in the novel, race is something to be proud of—but also something to keep hidden. Just like in the real world, then, race is super complex.

    Questions About Race

    1. Does race affect Delphine's life more or less than it affects Calinda's? Why or why not? Remember to bust out examples from the text.
    2. Does race affect the white characters at all? How?
    3. How do people in New Orleans and people in Grand Tower view race differently? Be as specific as possible.
    4. Has anything changed between 1861 and 1916 in terms of the way that most people view race? If so, what? If not, why not?

    Chew on This

    It is necessary for Delphine to hide her race in order to protect herself and those around her.

    Delphine's life is more affected by race than Andre's.

  • Time

    Literally speaking, we're dealing with two times in The River Between Us. We open and close with Howard's frame story, which occurs in 1916, but the bulk of the book is Tilly's main story, which occurs in 1861. As Tilly tells Howard her story, the two times meet, and Howard thinks a lot about how old the old people are and how he can't even imagine how long ago 1861 was. Howard doesn't have a ton of imagination, to be honest, since only 55 years separate the two stories. But still, time is definitely a factor in this book.

    Questions About Time

    1. What do 1861 and 1916 have in common? How are they different? How does each time period help us to understand the other?
    2. Why do you think it's so hard for Howard to imagine the past and to get his head around how long ago the Civil War was?
    3. How would Tilly's story be different without Howard's frame story?
    4. Think of an event that occurred 55 years ago. How would you connect that event to today?

    Chew on This

    While 1861 and 1916 seem like different eras, they have key characteristics in common.

    Fifty-five years is both a long and a short amount of time.

  • Old Age

    In The River Between Us, Tilly's story is set in 1861, and by 1916, the main players who are still alive are between 70 and 80 years old. That doesn't seem as ancient as Howard describes it, but we have to remember that healthcare and life expectancy weren't the same then as they are now.

    We also see the old through Howard's eyes—and at 15, he thinks these folks are really old. When one of these old people, Tilly, speaks, she often refers to old age in contrast with youth. Old age is also addressed in the book in terms of time passing and by comparing emotional and spiritual aging to physical aging. And here we thought growing old was just about wrinkles.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. Based solely on Howard's descriptions, how old would you think his Illinois relatives are? Pick out a few passages to specifically work with.
    2. What contributes to physical and emotional aging in the book? Does it affect everyone equally? If so, what does this suggest? If not, what do you notice, and why is it significant?
    3. Why do you think Tilly and Noah are still in relatively good shape, while Delphine and Dr. Hutchings are struggling more?
    4. What does Howard think about aging?

    Chew on This

    Howard's descriptions of old age emphasize how long ago the Civil War was.

    Tilly and Noah don't seem as old as much as their partners because they stay busy.

  • Contrasting Regions: North and South

    The River Between Us is set during the Civil War, so it's no surprise that the North and South are contrasted. We see the contrast mostly through individuals—boys who drill for one side or the other, older men who debate the issues, family members who make different choices about which side to support. The most powerful images of contrast, however, are those of Delphine and Calinda living their New Orleans-flavored lives in a small town in Illinois. The fact that they are able to find some reconciliation between the two ways of life gives us hope for the nation.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: North and South

    1. Do certain characters "represent" the North and others the South? Other than where they're from, how do you know?
    2. How do Noah and Paw end up on different sides? Why do you think each chooses the side he fights on?
    3. According to the book, what is the South like? What is the North like? Does the book take a side?
    4. Who do you think Calinda supports in the war, if anyone, and why? She never says, unlike Delphine.

    Chew on This

    The South is presented as an opulent, luxurious place to party, while the North is presented as more practical and hardworking.

    Delphine and Noah's relationship represents a reunion of North and South.

  • Versions of Reality

    In The River Between Us, two characters have the gift. You know, second sight, a sixth sense, prophecy, visions, seeing—whatever we call it, it means they can see the future and the past. Cass and Calinda keep the other characters on their toes by calling the future before it happens. There's a difference, though, in how their families regard this gift, and thus, how they view themselves.

    The Pruitts consider Cass's gift itself to be a form of madness, rather than thinking that perhaps the gift is driving her mad. And so, they try to hide it. As a result, Cass withers away until she meets Calinda, whose family regards her abilities as an enviable gift. Cass blooms under Calinda's tutelage, but she withers again when Calinda leaves, unable to bear her gift on her own.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What accounts for the differences in how Cass' and Calinda's families view their psychic abilities?
    2. Would you want to live with someone who could see the future? Why or why not?
    3. How do Cass' and Calinda's prophecies affect other characters' actions? What does this reveal about other characters? How about Cass and Calinda?
    4. Why doesn't Mama reveal her own gifts in order to help Cass?

    Chew on This

    Cass' and Calinda's visions create the future they foretell because people act on them.

    Had Mama acknowledged her own abilities earlier, she might have helped Cass endure her visions.