Deep River Burning, Donelle Dreese WiDo Publishing, 2014 Reveiwed by Jonita Davis
The cover of Donelle Dreese’s Deep Burning River features sunset hues over the foaming sea. Under over-sized title font stands a lithe, scantily-clad damsel looking out onto the horizon. All of these elements predict a romance novel in the pages to come. However, the cover is misleading. Masquerading the image of a tawdry beach novel rests not a romance, but a moving tale of the of loss and redemption in words that seemed to be textually painted onto every page with Dreese’s unique lyrical style and her knack for capturing the natural image in simple, but descriptive terms.
The first chapters open up with a view of the Pennsylvania coal country using words that easily conjure a rich, sensual setting for the characters in the story. These descriptive turns of a phrase include imagery of “lakes filled with honey,” where a “dark orange sunset of autumn drenched layers of copper glow over the fields.” Such imagery aids create a motion picture setting in the reader’s mind’s eye. A task that becomes necessary in the opening chapters of the book.
The descriptive language flows richly throughout the book, but is often interrupted in the beginning by dialogue that comes off as unnatural or too stiff. Dreese is obviously not as comfortable putting words into the mouths of her characters as she is with internal monologues. However, this faux pas is quickly overlooked as the story of the character Denver unfolds. And, that story is an intriguing one. Denver, Josh, and Helena are a trio of friends who were born and raised in the coal town. They come from several generations of company and illegal miners, all of whom helped mine the land on which the town was built. These families also inadvertently create the fuel-rich catacombs through which a fire burns. It smolders at first, but later blazes out of control, pushing the friends and residents out for good. Denver and her friends watch their town, their loved ones, and a member of their own trio slowly succumb to the fire below. None of the losses were burned in the fire—all are casualties of the violence, stubborn ignorance and abject resistance to reality. Denver flees, but quickly finds just how hard it is to run away from the pain that is not properly reconciled.
Through Denver’s character, the reader has the opportunity to feel the heat of hatred and frustration as it butts head with the cold reality of death, loneliness, and loss. Dreese uses her skilled manipulation of the language to portray these themes in concrete imagery that the audience can easily identify with. For example, as Denver leaves home, she tries unsuccessfully to think through her next steps and is met with frustration and difficulty. She finds, “sometimes the mind is a windowless box. Some days it is full of open passageways, breezy and free, letting in a flare of light until another time, when the windows disappear.” By using the image of a window to sum up the girl’s mental state, Dreese captures the paradox of having and finding clarity during intense periods of grief. In fact, much of the reflective material in the book comes in the form of Denver’s internal monologue, letting the reader experience the character’s evolution as it occurs. However, she is not the only sage thinker in the book. Several nuggets of reflection and truth come from the mouths of Josh, Denver’s Aunt Rosemary, and later Father Allan.
Deep Burning River is about a hot stubborn coal fire that forces a girl, her friends, and an entire town to reexamine what it means to feel, respond to, and eventually overcome loss. Audiences coming to the novel in search for a Harlequinesque tale of romance and sensuality will be greatly unsatisfied. However, Dreese’s novel is a substantial literary meal for the avid lover of drama and narrative, or just the reader who loves a good story.