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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
(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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