“Seven Islands of the Ocmulgee: River Stories” by Gordon Johnston

In Seven Islands of the Ocmulgee: River Stories, Gordon Johnston has created a powerful collection that reflects the challenges, complexities, and desires of twenty-first-century life in the changing American South. Gordon Johnston, a Professor of Creative Writing at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, knows this landscape well. Johnston, a Georgia native, was previously artist-in-residence at the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, during which time he studied the park’s archives and artifacts while spending a great deal of time in the park and on the water. The stories in this collection demonstrate Johnston’s clear intimacy with the river and its surroundings in his vivid depictions of the landscape.

The stories are populated with a varied constellation of characters. In the opening story, for example, the manager of a Publix grocery store goes to the river to rescue a stolen shopping cart. The following story begins with one of his employees, who scouts out a place on the river for a baptism amid the threat of racist violence. “Skin Trade” traces the development of a fraught relationship between a prostitute and an art professor who hires her both for sex and as a life model for his classes.

The title story, “Seven Islands,” follows a grieving woman kayaking the river who attempts to rescue a boy she discovers abandoned on a rock in the middle of the river. In this story, the immediacy of the river helps her forget “her nine-months-dead dad, the failing pawn shop he had left her, and the new pain in the old scar where her left breast had been.” In the aftermath of the danger she encounters in trying to help the boy escape his threatening father, she discovers truths about herself, her own grief, and her general sense of loss. In trying to save her late father’s failing business, she realizes that she only cared about her father’s pawn shop when she discovered that she would lose it.

Throughout these stories are many such variations on this realization, that we only value what we have once it is threatened or gone. Many of these characters face authentic danger posed either by the river itself or its wild environs. For example, the narrator of “Going to Water on Wild Creek” observes, “The best and worst moment in a wild place is the recognition of what one has to lose.” The river that runs through all of these stories provides such a “wild place,” both literally and metaphorically. Characters’ lives are changed by their confrontation with wildness.

These are powerful, suspenseful stories, creating a tapestry of experiences and perspectives all centered on the landscapes and people along the Ocmulgee River. Johnston’s skills as a poet drive the stories’ powerful language. For example, in “Going to Water on Wild Creek,” after driving through recognizable Macon suburbs on his way to a canoeing trip on the Ocmulgee River, the narrator contemplates the different forms of silences that he seeks on this trip:

The other, better silences speak. The cession of small talk and sales jingles and the bluster of meetings, the susurrus of Interstate 75 and of elevator music and the televisions that have colonized even schools and churches. In coming to the river, he comes to be entirely subject to a place and to the processes, beauties, and dangers of its persisting, its going on in the oldest worldly way. He is choosing the Ocmulgee’s sounds–shoal chuckles, the different signs of breeze through pine, hickory, and sycamore trees, a rare heron croak, the ratcheting and keening of kingfishers and hawks–which never dominate his sense and which never diminish in the background.

The river in these stories offers a powerful respite from the noisiness of the modern world.

However, nature’s respite is neither all-consuming nor romantic. Again, in “Going to Water on Wild Creek,” the narrator’s “adrenaline doubled at the sight of the water’s boil along a bank low enough to launch from.” His experience with the river is one of both confrontation and acquiescence:

That sight simultaneously disquiets him and drowns all his excuses. He must go, must commit. Always he comes wanting to meet the river in person and paddle it–but in person her volume and authority take him aback. She is lenient, reckless, a downhill riot. She bullies, carves, and butts. A person sees the broken and blasted bed her current has plowed, a hundred casual damages plain in any one rod of riverbank, and the sheath around their soul thins until they can see through it.

In this story and others, the characters must learn to work with and adapt to the river in order to survive: “To come through this negotiation with gravity and gush, it is best to be as light as a beaver-stripped stick. The more minimal he makes himself the better.”

However, there is more to the river than elemental metamorphosis. Seeping through the wildness of nature is the wildness of the city and civilization, as set up in the opening story, “The Only Place to Start From.” In this story, Peavy sets out to rescue his grocery store cart from the river, an endeavor fraught with dangers both natural and manmade. When he first finds the shopping cart sunk into the mud beneath the river’s flowing water, he discovers danger lurking beneath the surface:

He seized the rim of the basket and pulled hard with his back, not using his knees as the stock room safety posters dictated. The cart moved not an inch, but something inside it did–a shadow two shades greener than the water rose, as long and thick as an arm, blunt-snouted. Peavy stared into a flat-undead eye above an open jaw filled like a comb with teeth.

This unidentifiable danger lurking beneath the surface is emblematic of much of the danger in the collection, as is the juxtaposition of the dangers of nature and man–and how impossible it is to separate them. Peavy is not a nature buff: as a grocery store manager, “Peavy didn’t know fish at all, unless you counted the dead ones people bought out of the ice-filled case at the back of the store.” As in all of the stories, even the most dangerous parts of nature are entwined with the dangers of civilization; and salvation requires a combination of both elements. Peavy’s epic begins with his struggle to rescue the shopping cart from the river, but it ends with his attempts to rescue a young boy’s family being evicted from their home.

Though the depictions of the river certainly draw on traditional symbolism of baptism and renewal, as in “The Only Place to Start From,” such symbolism is complicated by the realities of modern life and the real dangers of nature. The boy that Peavy tries to help cites his own Native American identity in claiming his right to build a fire near the river at the Ocmulgee Mounds National State Park, thus complicating the story’s themes of ownership and theft. And in “Burying Ground,” Peavy’s employee Tobit “took the bus as far north of town as it went, to the new shopping center with the big bookstore in it, and from there he walked north and east with his King James under his arm along the road toward the river” in his odyssey to scout out the traditional “burying ground” or stretch of the river used for baptism.

Gordon Johnston

Coming directly after Peavy’s story, one expects that the primary dangers that Tobit will face at the river might be other dangerous river creatures with dead eyes and teeth. And while the trek through the woods to the river is difficult for his fellow church congregants the next day, the greatest danger is posed not by snakes or exposed tree roots, but by the white man in a pick-up truck who blocks Tobit’s path out of the woods and accuses him of trespassing. In one of many unexpected turns, the Black congregants who have tended to the baptism at the river end up ministering to the white man who initially threatens them but ultimately admits to his own trauma and loss.

The complexities of–and lack of easy answers at–the river reflect the complexities of the life that surrounds it and the lives that are drawn to it. It is more than simply wildness and danger, but also more than a romantic pastoral promise of salvation. As the preacher in “Burying Ground” explains, “We gather here on this old Ocmulgee River that runs down to the ocean because we are called to. God has called us to this old place where things don’t change, where the creation is still the creation, where the things of the Lord have kept on keeping on.” Or as Tobit experiences, “He had forgotten how the river opened the world and cooled it. All weariness dropped from him. For a long time he stood there. The currents came together in a long, murmuring wave.”

And just as the currents come together in the river, so, too, do these stories come together to evoke a complicated and changing place. This collection of seven short stories set in and around the Ocmulgee River in middle Georgia is a thrilling ride.

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