Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Gifts for the Dead - Joan Schweighardt

Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead is clearly labeled as “Rivers Book 2,” but I found that it also works well as a standalone novel for readers unfamiliar with the first Rivers book.

Gifts for the Dead begins in 1911 and is told from the alternating points-of-view of the book’s two main characters, Nora and Jack. Nora’s segments are in the form of that character’s first person narration, with Jack’s segments being told in the third person, making for an interesting piecing together of their shared story. As the book opens, Nora and Maggie (Jack’s mother) are expecting a knock on the door of Maggie’s Hoboken, New Jersey, home announcing that Jack and his brother Baxter have died in a South American rain forest. The brothers went into the rain forest hoping to make their fortunes as rubber tree tappers, but Maggie and Nora have heard nothing from them for months. Now, because of this long silence, the women are expecting a confirmation of what they already know in their hearts to be the case: Bax and Jack died some horrible death deep in the rain forest.

But that’s not what happens when the knock on the door finally comes.

Instead, two men from the docks are there to deliver Jack Hopper, unrecognizable and near death as he is, to his mother. Of Bax, the men can only tell Maggie that those on the ship who delivered Jack to them claim that his brother died in the jungle. So now, Nora, who expected to marry Bax upon his return, has lost her fiancĂ© and Maggie will be lucky if even one of her sons survives their ill-fated attempt to strike it rich in South America. Nora, who has been close to Maggie and her boys since childhood, recognizes, too, that Maggie is incapable of giving Jack the kind of  round-the-clock care that will keep him alive. If Jack is to survive, it will be up to her.

Joan Schweighardt 
As the days and weeks pass, with Nora’s help Jack slowly recovers his strength. Just as slowly, but just as steadily, the relationship between Nora and Jack evolves from one of friendship to something more meaningful. Theirs, though, is not an easy relationship because neither of them can ever really forget Bax long enough to get on with the rest of their lives. Nora and Jack both desperately need some kind of closure regarding Bax, but what if what they learn is more than their relationship can survive?

Bottom Line: Gifts for the Dead is good, character-driven historical fiction focusing on the years just before and just after World War I from the perspective of those on the Hoboken home front. In the process, the novel explores the fears, hopes, and prejudices of the country during the period.  But at its heart, this is the story of Bax, Jack, and Nora, three people whose lives are so intertwined that none of them can ever really be free of the others, even in death. Joan Schweighardt’s characters are memorable ones with a complicated story to tell, and Schweighardt tells it well.  

Review Copy courtesy of Author and Publisher


  1. Doesn't sound like a happy read, but it does sound interesting. :)

    1. No, not at all a happy read; just the opposite.

      But it's a very well written, thoughtful book that I really enjoyed because the author has some insights into relationships that made me think. And she really captured the atmosphere of early WWI in this country - and of the rain forest hell the characters endured. Really good book.


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