Downriver by Jeanne M. Leiby
Carolina Wren Press, 2007
Published, Mid-American Review, Spring 2008
In Downriver, Jeanne Leiby paints a realistic and intricate portrait of the downriver suburbs of Detroit and the people who live there, in the sooty shadows of the city. This collection won Leiby the 2006 Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and, at its heart, examines an intense connection to place, a deep devotion family, and the universal struggle to maintain and survive.
Leiby uses a variety of voices, from children to teens, young women, and parents to portray the diversity of the families living downriver from the industrial plants which once brought prosperity to the city. Each protagonist is bound to his or her environment, both the intimate environment of a home, and the larger world in which they must operate.
Many of the characters are at odds with their place, sometimes disgusted by its ugliness, occasionally even wounded by its deteriorating condition; however, some have come to terms and realize that, no matter how badly they want it, there’s really no escape. In “Vinegar Tasting”, Anna’s lover Al takes her to a gourmet food-tasting where they drink expensive vinegars. The vinegar ruins her taste buds and nothing has flavor for days. For Anna, downriver is like the vinegar. It might be hard to swallow at first, but it ruins the taste for anything else. Anna says, “Our hearts and blood are industrial too, and in the end, we have to believe it’s beautiful here…Watch the smokestacks flames perpetually burning off methane gases like the eternal flame, and then you tell me this place doesn’t look like the Emerald City.”
Even Anna, though, once had dreams of leaving. The desire to get away is a common theme that circulates throughout the collection, which might explain the inclusion of boats in nearly every story. “Docks” is the only story in which a boat is actually attained; however, when Lila (the young narrator) watches her mother essentially pirate the family boat and untether from the dock, the reader is filled with a sense of foreboding. “Docks” shows that the idea of escape is far better than actually leaving the dock and sailing away. Leaving is dangerous; a true escape is not possible.
Jeanne Leiby skillfully uses simple dialog that rings of authenticity to create real people who struggle, like we all do, for security, prosperity, love and safety. These men and women have not given up or given in to their circumstances. There is no self-pity here. Like the river that runs near their homes, their lives might look the same day after day, but they’re also changing. Downriver is not always pretty, but it keeps on moving and growing. It lasts.