The River Midnight

The four women chronicled in The River Midnight were once known as the vilda hayas, “wild creatures,” because of their remarkable exuberance and unconventional behavior. These inseparable friends loved to flee the confinement of their conservative Jewish homes to share girlish secrets and dance together in the woods. As their elders predicted, middle age with its responsibilities and disappointments brought them down to earth. Only memories of their once warm comradeship still remain.

Hanna-Leah married the town butcher and remained childless in spite of magic potions secretly stirred into her feckless husband’s food. Her best friend, Faygela, who aspired to be a writer and an intellectual, married the town baker and, to Hanna-Leah’s unspeakable jealousy, bore six children. Misha, the town midwife, the strongest, most independent of the foursome, married and divorced—but now she has become pregnant and everyone is guessing the father’s identity. Zisa-Sara moved to New York with her husband. Both died in a garment factory fire and their Americanized daughter Emma has returned to live with relatives. She and Faygela’s oldest daughter Ruthie developed a friendship bordering on lesbian love.

This first novel by young Canadian Lilian Nattel shows impressive technical ability, self-discipline, and imagination. Inspired by the stories of her immigrant parents about their homeland, Nattel, who has been compared to E.L. Doctorow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, spent years researching her subject before attempting to reinvent the history of her people. She provides an extensive bibliography plus a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew words and expressions the reader will encounter in this intriguing book.