Back Bay Books, 2008
Life is layered. Humans seamlessly move hour by hour through family life, commuter life, work life, social life, whatever else life, and then go home again for family life. Our minds flit from one subject to another without anyone around us realizing we are thinking about pain, wondering about life, experiencing beauty, seeking love. We’re seldom noticed and never congratulated for retaining sanity as long as we remain reliable.
Through Hamill’s writing I sat on the reliable shoulders of Dr. James Delaney during six months of 1934 New York. I saw the neighborhood family doctor go about his morning rituals and care for an endless series of people suffering from colds, gonorrhea, and gunshot wounds while his personal life quietly continued on the other side of the door that separated his home from his office. The mood of the story was made stronger by Hamill’s use of the name North River. The now outdated name the Dutch settlers gave the name of the Hudson River makes the step back in history stronger.
The ever symbolic North River was seen through Delaney’s eyes as he suffered the unexplained disappearance of his wife and then the results of the frivolous marriage of his young daughter. After becoming a mother, she escapes to Spain and leaves the three-year-old grandson Delaney had never met to his care. Still the river runs on behind the scenes in Delaney’s life as he begins to care for his grandson and deals with the romantic consequences of hiring the necessary housekeeper/nanny while juggling his downtrodden, needy patients.
People like Delaney are unobserved and unappreciated in history books, but North River’s sometimes hour-to-hour and day-to-day pace reconstructs the tone of lives not often recorded. Hamill inserted period gang life into the story for a vivid background that builds depth and questions the differences between gritty urban life and war. The novel flows from that to be the over the shoulder look into the life of a man who was changed by serving in World War I and is still piecing his life together from the scraps that military service to his country as a doctor left him.
From first sentence to last, the North River flows through the story marking its tone, giving up detritus, assuring life’s immutability, and continuing on without us. Between the first and last sentence is the life of a man treading life’s waters in the best way he can.