In the opening pages of E. Reid Gilbert’s quiet, captivating novel, we’re introduced to Jimmy Sue Bennett, a farmer in the mountains of Virginia. He has recently died, and his great-nephew, the book’s narrator, is visiting a rural cemetery to oversee the placement of his grave marker.
“He had chosen this particular gravesite for reasons unbeknownst to anybody but himself, only I had kind of figured out what it was all about it,” the narrator says. “It was right next to the metal fence which separated the white folks’ cemetery from that of the ‘coloreds.’”
Jimmy Sue’s story goes back to 1875 in Virginia, when the Hiltons, a family of black sharecroppers, arrive to farm land near the Bennetts. “The Hiltons were somewhat of a mystery there in the mountains where few colored folks could be found,” Gilbert writes. As the families get to know each other, Jimmy Sue finds himself falling for Madeleen Hilton, a quiet girl with a beautiful voice and a habit of calling him “White Boy.” Their story of forbidden love provides the framework for this story
Gilbert’s strength in storytelling lies in the simplicity of his words, which paint a vivid picture of white-black relations in post-Civil War times. As he weaves the tale of blooming love, he also tells the story of a simpler time, with skilfull descriptions that take readers to the swimming hole and the forest; to tobacco harvests and church gatherings (“the sounds of pot-lids being lifted, mixed with the clanking of silverware against porcelain and tin plates and the pouring of gurgling lemonade into glasses…”)
Shall We Gather at the River is a compelling story that gently guides the reader to its inevitable ending.
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