Set in that border area of south Texas referred to as The Valley, The River Beyond the World, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1996, explores the two worlds that exist in this area that is almost accidentally a part of the United States. As Rolando Hinojosa has amply demonstrated in his writing about the same region, many of the oldest families in the area are Mexican and have roots dating back, like Hinojosa’s own, to the 1740’s.
After the Mexican War, when the boundary lines were drawn, those to the north of the line were considered citizens of the United States, those to the south of it, citizens of Mexico. The many third- and fourth-generation Mexicans who lived north of the boundary continued to speak Spanish and continued to view themselves as Mexican nationals even though they paid taxes to the United States and were subject to its laws.
The border area that Peery describes in astoundingly full and accurate detail resonates with the same sort of authenticity that readers find in such Hinojosa works as Estampas del valle y otras obras: Sketches of the Valley and Other Works (1973; English revision, The Valley, 1983), Klail City y sus alrededores (1976; Klail City: A Novel, 1987), Mi querido Rafa (1981; Dear Rafe, 1985), and other such portions of Hinojosa’s sprawling, multi-volume work, The Klail City Death Trip (1973- ), which has not yet been completed.
The River Beyond the World opens in Salsipuedes, Mexico, which Peery describes in singularly vivid visual detail. There the young, virginal Luisa Cantú has been selected as a major participant in a primitive fertility rite that is enacted every year. As part of the rite, the virgin selected takes peyote and engages in sex seven times with Uncle Chu, the shaman, thereby virtually assuring that a pregnancy will ensue, as it does in Luisa’s case.
As part of the established ritual, the pregnant girl, having been honored by her pregnancy, rides a tame bear through the streets during the Christmas celebration. In due season, Luisa’s child, a boy whom she names Gustavo, arrives. Before long, Luisa, a most honorable and responsible young woman, flees from her home, crossing the border illegally and landing in the border town of Rio Paradiso, to find work with Thomas Hatch, who, recognizing her honesty and industriousness, takes her home to be the servant of his wife, Edwina, called Eddie by all who know her.
Eddie Harmon Hatch was born and lived her first three decades in Lynchburg, Virginia. She was brought up to value southern gentility and had a romantic notion of what it meant to be among the First Families of Virginia (FFV’s), as they were known in society. Although her family’s fortunes diminished steadily during her adolescence and young adulthood, Eddie never overcame the feeling of superiority that her upbringing had convinced her was her God- given right.
Facing an almost certain spinsterhood, Eddie encouraged the courtship of Thomas Hatch when he came to Lynchburg and before long had married him and moved to The Valley, the part of south Texas from which he came. Thomas was a thoroughly good man, but ghosts from his past haunted him. His family had suffered financial reversals the memories of which caused him to be overly cautious.
When Thomas’ contemporaries were mortgaging themselves up to the hilt to build impressive homes in the best part of town, Thomas was saving his money and living far less well than most of the people with whom he and Eddie associated. Images of the bank’s foreclosure on his grandfather’s Oklahoma farm and its aftermath, which necessitated the old man’s taking a menial job and living in a shed with the sixteen-year-old Thomas, who was his ward, stayed Thomas every time he considered the possibility of building a house reflective of his position in the community.
Another specter also haunted Thomas. In his youth, he had been close friends with Faye and Lorna, sisters who lived down the road from his grandfather’s farm. Thomas had always supposed that he would some day marry one of these two girls, although he had not yet decided which one, but fate intervened when Thomas, out hunting, mistook Faye for a fox and shot her in the face. This was clearly an accident, but Faye’s face was badly scarred and she lost an eye as a result of the accident.
Memories of this horrible event dogged Thomas’ mind and had a profound effect upon his marriage. He was not able to perform sexually with Eddie, at least not to the extent that she required. Initially, it appears that Thomas might be gay, but his sexual...