Book review: "Bitter River" by Julia Keller

Fiction • Amid economic hardship, a gripping take on innocence, hope lost.
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The Bitter River that runs near the small, economically depressed town of Acker's Gap, W. Va., has myriad meanings.

For those residents who have ambitions to leave, Bitter River represents hope as it flows way beyond this "shabby afterthought" of a town. For others who have "settled," whose goals don't reach beyond the town limits, seeing only a future of poor wages and even drugs, Bitter River offers a handy spot to dump garbage, unwanted appliances, used beer cans, the discards that represent the detritus of many lives.

This metaphor of a river as both a life force and a dead end makes a superb background for Julia Keller's second strong novel about Bell Elkins, who escaped her traumatic upbringing in Acker's Gap by "perfecting the dark art of emotional survival," only to return as the prosecuting attorney.

The intelligently plotted "Bitter River" moves at a brisk, elegant pace as Keller looks at a woman coming to terms with her hometown, and deeply concerned that the town is sinking under the weight of economic realities. "Bitter River" also illustrates that no matter how remote, no place is immune to a changing world.

Bright, popular Lucinda Trimble was one of those who saw the roiling river as a way out, adding to the tragedy when this 16-year-old is murdered. Her body is found in a partly submerged car in Bitter River. Few knew that Lucinda was pregnant, which makes her boyfriend, scion of a wealthy family, a prime suspect. Bell must wade through Lucinda's life, and convince her reticent friends to talk to her.

Lucinda's murderer may have been a local resident, but Acker's Gap also is under attack from the outside after a sniper fires at the county courthouse. Acker's Gap's remote location in the West Virginia mountains has not made it safe from the world at large.

Keller's careful storytelling ties the plots together in an intriguing tale. "Bitter River" merges the teen's death and a gripping view about innocence and hope lost.

Too many people in Acker's Gap simply "give up," succumbing to limitations of the area as they go through the motions of life without embracing life. In her own way, Bell fights against that for herself and for the town.