Excerpt from The River King by Alice Hoffman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The River King

by Alice Hoffman

The River King
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2000, 304 pages
    Jul 2001, 352 pages

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There was a time when it seemed possible for the separate worlds to be united, when Dr. George Howe, the esteemed headmaster, considered to be the finest in the Haddan School history, decided to marry Annie Jordan, the most beautiful girl in the village. Annie's father was a well-respected man who owned a parcel of farmland out where Route 17 now runs into the interstate, and he approved of the marriage, but soon after the wedding it became apparent that Haddan would remain divided. Dr. Howe was jealous and vindictive; he turned local people away from his door. Even Annie's family was quickly dispatched. Her father and brothers, good, simple men with mud on their boots, were struck mute the few times they came to call, as if the bone china and leather-bound books had robbed them of their tongues. Before long people in town came to resent Annie, as if she'd somehow betrayed them. If she thought she was so high and mighty, in that fine house by the river, then the girls she grew up with felt they had reason to retaliate, and on the streets they passed her by without a word. Even her own dog, a lazy hound named Sugar, ran away yelping on those rare occasions when Annie came to visit her father's farm.

It quickly became clear that the marriage had been a horrid mistake; anyone more worldly than Annie would have known this from the start. At his very own wedding, Dr. Howe had forgotten his hat, always the sign of a man who's bound to stray. He was the sort of person who wished to own his wife, without belonging to her in return. There were days when he spoke barely a sentence in his own home, and nights when he didn't come in until dawn. It was loneliness that led Annie to begin her work in the gardens at Haddan, which until her arrival were neglected, ruined patches filled with ivy and nightshade, dark vines that choked out any wildflowers that might have grown in the thin soil. As it turned out, Annie's loneliness was the school's good fortune, for it was she who designed the brick walkways that form an hourglass and who, with the help of six strong boys, saw to the planting of the weeping beeches beneath whose branches many girls still receive their first kiss. Annie brought the original pair of swans to reside at the bend in the river behind the headmaster's house, ill-tempered, wretched specimens rescued from a farmer in Hamilton whose wife plucked their bloody feathers for soft, plump quilts. Each evening, before supper, when the light above the river washed the air with a green haze, Annie went out with an apronful of old bread. She held the firm belief that scattering bread crumbs brought happiness, a condition she herself had not known since her wedding day.

There are those who vow that swans are unlucky, and fishermen in particular despise them, but Annie loved her pets; she could call them to her with a single cry. At the sound of her sweet voice the birds lined up as politely as gentlemen; they ate from her hands without ever once drawing blood, favoring crusts of rye bread and whole-wheat crackers. As a special treat, Annie often brought whole pies, leftovers from the dining room. In a wicker basket, she piled up apple cobbler and wild raspberry tart, which the swans gobbled down nearly whole, so that their beaks were stained crimson and their bellies took on the shapes of medicine balls.

Even those who were certain Dr. Howe had made a serious error in judgment in choosing his bride had to admire Annie's gardens. In no time the perennial borders were thick with rosy-pink foxglove and cream-colored lilies, each of which hung like a pendant, collecting dew on its satiny petals. But it was with her roses that Annie had the best luck of all, and among the more jealous members of the Haddan garden club, founded that very year in an attempt to beautify the town, there was speculation that such good fortune was unnatural. Some people went so far as to suggest that Annie Howe sprinkled the pulverized bones of cats around the roots of her ramblers, or perhaps it was her own blood she cast about the shrubs. How else could her garden bloom in February, when all other yards were nothing more than stonewort and bare dirt? Massachusetts was known for a short growing season and its early killing frosts. Nowhere could a gardener find more unpredictable weather, be it droughts or floods or infestations of beetles, which had been known to devour entire neighborhoods full of greenery. None of these plagues ever affected Annie Howe. Under her care, even the most delicate hybrids lasted past the first frost so that in November there were still roses blooming at Haddan, although by then, the edge of each petal was often encased in a layer of ice.

Reprinted from The River King by Alice Hoffman by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Alice Hoffman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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