Home > Uncategorized > Family Friendly Fiction: The River by Michael Neale

Family Friendly Fiction: The River by Michael Neale

In many ways this is going to be the most difficult book review I’ve written, not because I didn’t like it, but because of the direction I want to take with the review. So let me say at the beginning that I certainly did enjoy the book; it is very well written with painstaking detail especially on the subject of white water rafting, and while I don’t want to minimize some of the early chapters, The River by Michael Neale is like a great symphony piece that builds in intensity with each new section.

The River is a Bildungsroman — there’s your new literary genre word for today — meaning a coming of age story; which in this case traces the story of Gabriel Clarke from early years to adulthood, largely in terms of his relationship to the river in the part of Colorado where he grew up, and his separation from the river during his formative years in Kansas. Thematically, the book’s primary concern is the parts of our past that follow us through life that we cannot shake.

The river itself might be seen as a metaphor for something else, but I would be very cautious in ascribing a particular interpretation on this point. There are hints of possible meanings, but it was hard for this reader to see the river as little more than …. a river.

And that was where, as I neared the conclusion, I started to think in terms of where this book fits in to the Christian fiction I usually read. There are some things in the plot that can be considered divine providence, and one reviewer I found certainly read this into the story, but for the most part that attribution is neither direct nor implied.

All of which brings me back to discussions I had with people in the ’80s when the Christian music industry was going through a period of rapid expansion: What constitutes a Christian song? What constitutes a Christian album? Or in this case, what makes a work of fiction a Christian fiction title?

Ignoring the obvious — I’ll save you making the comment — that Christian is not an adjective; we tended in those days to say that if the artist was a Christian then the work was “in.” Others said if the LP or cassette or CD was released on a Christian label, then it must be Christian music. But the topic consumed many hours of heated debate. How does that apply here?

Michael Neale is a Dove-award winning songwriter for the song Your Great Name. So, no faulting him there. The publisher imprint, Thomas Nelson, makes things a little more challenging, since Nelson does do a few business books and general interest gift books, but is primarily known in the broader industry as a religious book publisher. But which religion?

The point I would make here is that The River would be quite at home among a collection of books relating to North American aboriginal belief, pantheism, folk religion or even new age literature. In a typical Christian novel, the characters’ thoughts, words and actions are informed by their belief in and desire to follow Jesus Christ. In the previous fiction title I reviewed, The Reason, (also Thomas Nelson) much of the book takes place in a church and there are long sections where the characters wrestle with matters of faith. Not every faith-based novel needs to be quite so obvious, but this one is as far at the other end of that spectrum as can be. I recall a scene where a family prayed before a meal, but that stood out as an exception.

So honestly, I’m not sure where this title fits into the sometimes judgmental Christian book market. DVDs which are family-friendly but not faith-based make the cut at Mardel, Parable and Family Christian, so on that basis there’s no problem here. But often book readers hold authors, publishers and book vendors to a higher standard.

Great story. Well done. Five stars.

Just not sure where it fits in with other books I’ve reviewed here.

A copy of The River was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin; available at your local bookstore from Thomas Nelson.

  1. September 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I looked through the 75+ reviews for this book at BlogSneeze (a Thomas Nelson blogger site) and saw only one reviewer who I felt had the courage to say what I was feeling.


    I loaned my copy to the manager at my Cobourg store, and this morning she met me and church basically saying, “What was the river supposed to represent? Is it God. Is it the lead character’s fears?”

    She didn’t know.

    And the book reviewers don’t want to cut off their supply of free goodies, so they go along with the program and say the book was the best thing since sliced bread (or the last book they got.)

    I did give it three stars. It’s well written and well developed. (Except for the mystery character who appears early on but then disappears.)

    But a Christian book?

    We’re not sure.

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