From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: ‘In the River Sweet,’ ‘Frida’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 5, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Review

Several years ago, at a conference on preaching in Alexandria, Va., a female Presbyterian minister said if she heard anymore stuff on the mid-life crisis of males she would scream.

Recently the Inland Register received a copy of Patricia Henley’s new novel In the River Sweet. It is a story stretching across 30-some years, centering on the main character, Ruth Anne Bond, as she struggles with her mid-life crisis. And personally I would like to shout out its praises. It is a fascinating story that carries us to Vietnam in the ’60s and New Orleans in the ’90s.

For me, the enriching side of In the River Sweet is Henley’s willingness to take on the key questions of life within a Roman Catholic context. She does not turn from moral issues that range from black and white to shades of gray.

Ruth Anne Bond is living a seemingly very happy life in a small town in Indiana where her husband, Johnny, the love of her life, runs a restaurant. She has a grown daughter who lives in the same town. All of a sudden she receives a message from a Vietnamese-American named Tin: “Dear Mrs. Ruth Anne, I believe you are my mother.”

In a series of flashbacks we learn in beautiful detail of the story of Ruth Ann leaving the Midwest during the Vietnam War to follow Johnny, who had been drafted. A group of French nuns had offered Ruth Ann a position as a English tutor and library bookbinder.

We are immersed into the poignant life of Saigon during the War. Henley gives us the smells and tastes of Vietnam as we follow Ruth Ann’s lonely but multifaceted life. She tries to get together with Johnny on leave. But he doesn’t show up and as the time passes she wonders: Is he alive or dead?

The Sisters ask her to read English novels to a young adult of Vietnamese background who happens to be blind. Thus begins a growing relationship that in the midst of war leads to consummation.

As Ruth Ann tries to work out her renewed feelings of shame and of not telling Johnny the truth, she travels to Michigan to reside for six weeks or so at a convent. Her good friend Jill, who is a nun, helps Ruth Ann learn the centering prayer and spend time with her very ill aunt, who has played a key role in Ruth Ann’s life. It is in the nearby vicinity of the convent that Ruth Ann eventually meets her son, Tin Tran. Their meeting and growing friendship both strengthens Ruth Ann and fills her with anxiety. How does she tell Johnny and her daughter, Laurel of her secret?

How do we deal with the events of our youth? Isn’t this part of the journey that sometimes haunts until the day we die?

Patricia Henley has a beautiful way with words. The emotions of In the River Sweet run over us as we read a pretty ordinary story that is told with passion and meaning.

There is a subplot with Ruth Ann and Johnny working their way through their daughter’s lesbian relationship. Henley writes for parents in particular struggling with the surprises in life.

Personally, I don’t like the use of dialogue without quotation marks. But in the end the dialogue is fairly easy to follow. The changes in time and place throughout the novel are easy to follow.

In the River Sweet is in the tradition of the Catholic novels of the 1940s and ’50s. It is a novel that pulsates with life and yet is filled with wisdom.

In the River Sweet by Patricia Henley is published by Pantheon Books, New York; 2002; hardcover, $24.


Movie Review

Julie Taymor, famous for her innovative direction of the stage version of The Lion King, shows us how film can be used to give us utterly beautiful pictures in her creation of the movie Frida.

Frida is an art film without subtitles that crosses from a narrow niche film to a flamboyant biography of the great modern painter Frida Kahlo. The beautiful Selma Hayek has long wanted to play the role of the tumultuous artist. Even when Kahlo is almost killed in a trolley accident in 1925, Hayek plays her as a beautiful, yet suffering, celebrity. There are said to be over 50 different colorful outfits that Hayek wears in the film, which covers the artist’s life from teen years to death in her mid-40s.

Frida tells the story of the faithful and unfaithful relationship of Frida and the great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Their lives together and separate certainly raise Woody Allen’s long-asked question: Do artists get to ignore the normal rules of daily life because they are so talented?

Frida seems to know what she is getting into when she says “Yes” to Diego’s proposal of marriage. She says she is willing to settle for “loyalty” from the mountain of a man known for his womanizing.

But the story of their life together shows that the womanizing does cause extreme pain and suffering. In the process Frida pushes the limits of her own sexuality.

Early in their marriage Frida and Diego, the political revolutionaries, come to New York City to do the murals in the entrance to Rockefeller Center. Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton, the real-life husband of Selma Hayek) hires Diego for the monumental task. The couple are wined and dined by the rich and famous of New York. In the end the murals are dramatically torn down because Diego refuses to remove the figure of Lenin in the painting.

The section on Leon Trotsky coming to live in Mexico City at the home of Frida’s parents is fascinating for all of its modern history of Communism. With powerful emotion we see Frida do to Trotsky’s wife what hundreds of women have done to her. She seems to realize how much another woman is hurt.

Throughout the movie Julie Taymor gives us beautiful breaks in the film that are done in a surreal magic realism style. The first one looks like a straight copy of one of Salvador Dali’s Spanish films done in the 1920s. Some viewers are going to find these interludes strange. But they are beautiful attempts to make Frida’s art come alive in the medium of film.

Taymor knows how to give us beautiful pictures. Her early scenes of Mexico City in the 1920s are terrific.

It is always difficult to play historical figures portrayed over the course of 30 years. Hayek doesn’t show her age in later life. She is always beautiful even though she is continually more crippled by the pain of her original accident and its results.

Alfred Mofina is great as the irascible but lovable Diego Rivera.

If you like history of the 20th century tied to dramatic, larger-than-life characters shown in stunning settings, you will find Frida a powerful experience.

Frida is rated R-Restricted (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There is strong sexuality, nudity and language. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Frida A-4 – adults, with reservations.

(Father Caswell is ecumenical relations officer for the Diocese of Spokane and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)

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