River to Redemption by Ann H. Gabhart has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
In June of 1833, cholera spread throughout the town of Springfield, Kentucky. Seven-year-old Adria Starr attempts to care for her sick family but soon is sick herself. By morning, she is the only survivor.
Louis Sanderson, a slave, finds Adria and takes her to the hotel in town, which has become a makeshift hospital. Matilda, the cook at the hotel, cares for Adria and others because the town doctor has fallen victim to the illness. Gradually, Adria recovers.
Louis takes it upon himself to find survivors and bury victims. Others have left town, including George Sanderson, who is Louis’ master and the owner of the hotel. Matilda urges Louis to run north while his master is away, but Louis refuses, saying that the Lord must have blessed him with an immunity to the illness so he can stay and take care of the town. By the end of the scourge, Louis has dug and filled 55 graves. One holds all three members of Adria’s family.
Once the epidemic is over, townsfolk return to Springfield. One such resident is Ruth Harmon. Her husband, Peter, the town’s teacher, has died so she needs to find a job. While visiting Peter’s grave, she meets Adria and Louis. Soon after, a town justice asks Ruth to take her husband’s place as the town’s teacher, and she agrees.
George commends Louis for his service to the town but makes it clear that Adria cannot stay at the hotel. Louis asks Ruth to become the girl’s guardian. Ruth agrees, believing it to be her Christian duty. They move into the Starrs’ house and cautiously begin their new life together.
Twelve years later, Adria is a beautiful, headstrong young woman. She works at the town mercantile. Carlton Damon courts her. Adria enjoys Carlton’s friendship but isn’t sure she can marry him and continue to fight injustice, such as slavery. Ruth encourages Adria to carefully consider marrying Carlton.
When school is not in session, Ruth sells baked goods to people like the town gossip and the new preacher in town, Will Robertson. Will, a widower who has left his daughter in the care of his sister in another town, has struggled to trust the Lord since his wife died in childbirth. He hopes that by continuing to preach the Gospel, the words will eventually work as a balm to his wounded soul.
While walking home one day, Adria is nearly run over by a runaway horse and wagon. She is shoved out of danger’s way by drover Logan Farrell. Logan is charming and dangerously handsome. Ruth does not approve of him. Adria knows Ruth is right and tries to distance herself from Logan with stiff formalities, yet she is drawn to the man’s easy smile and longs for the freedom he has.
The next day, Logan finds and gives Adria back her hat, which had been lost in the accident. As Logan walks with her to the mercantile, Adria is struck by how quickly their conversation turns comfortable and pleasant — not at all like her conversations with Carlton. Carlton sees them together and demands that Logan stay away from Adria. Incensed at being treated like property, Adria storms away from them.
Louis’ master grows ill and then dies. His sons intend to sell Louis and their other slaves. Adria finds Louis digging his master’s grave. She asks whether he is afraid of leaving Springfield. Louis admits that he is wary of his future but remains confident in the Lord’s will.
At home, Adria finds Will and Ruth discussing poetry. She has not heard Ruth laugh so warmly in a long time. Adria explains her friendship with Louis and how the town owes him a debt because of his service during the cholera epidemic.
Will feels certain that members of the town would be willing to donate funds and raise money to buy Louis’ freedom. Both Logan and Carlton visit Adria at the same time. Eventually Adria asks Carlton to walk her to work. Later, she learns that Carlton is for slavery. Adria declines his offer of marriage.
Adria finds Louis at the blacksmith’s, where Louis often helps Mr. Brown run the forge. Adria tells Mr. Brown of the plan to raise money to free Louis, and Mr. Brown cheerfully makes the first donation. Throughout the rest of the week, the donations continue.
The town gossip needs help and says she may want to buy the current hotel cook. She grudgingly gives a donation to Louis’ fund, too. Then Logan and the tavern owner rally patrons at the bar to donate for Louis’ freedom. Adria and Logan take the donations to the mercantile shop, where Adria’s boss is keeping Louis’ freedom fund under lock and key. Mr. Brown wants to retire and sell Louis his forge with whatever money remains after Louis’ freedom has been purchased.
Will’s sister is having a difficult pregnancy so his brother-in-law brings Will his toddler, Willeena. Will asks Ruth to marry him. She asks for time to prayerfully consider his offer.
The current hotel cook asks Adria to take her 15-year-old daughter to a station on the underground railroad before she is sold. When there is a fire in town, which Logan started, Adria catches Logan trying to steal Louis’ money. He wants to take the money and leave for California.
Adria gives him the store’s petty cash, and she tricks him into taking her and the 15-year-old slave to an underground railroad station. Though Logan wants Adria to go to California with him, she refuses.
During the town fire, Will loses track of Willeena. Ruth saves her. Will meets them. Once Will and Ruth get Willeena safely back to the church, Ruth officially accepts Will’s proposal.
Adria wonders whether stealing money from her boss and helping a slave to freedom were the right things to do. She realizes that she can’t preach abolition without trying to help more people than Louis.
The townsfolk successfully purchase Louis and give him his freedom. He starts his new life as a blacksmith. Ruth and Will hold a simple ceremony for their wedding. Adria decides to move to Boston and will live with an abolitionist friend as she’s tired of hiding her beliefs regarding the rights of women and the evils of slavery.
Adria prays to God when she first falls ill with cholera and isn’t sure whether she will survive. Louis continually professes his trust in God. Ruth considers converting to Catholicism and becoming a nun after Peter’s death but doesn’t wish to take such vows out of grief.
Ruth doesn’t feel capable of mothering Adria but agrees to become the child’s guardian, as she believes it is the Christian thing to do. She draws strength from reading Peter’s Bible, specifically Isaiah 40.
Will has questions about faith after his wife’s death but chooses to trust in God. He reads Psalm 71 in preparation for a sermon. Will visits the Sanderson family while George is on his deathbed, even though the family is Catholic. The Catholic priest states that the Lord hears all prayers and is grateful that Will arrived.
Will visits briefly with Louis. Louis tells him that all prayers are answered according to the will of the Lord; even an unexpected (or undesired) answer leads to the Lord’s good. Remembering how he fervently prayed for his wife to be healed, Will is challenged by Louis’ show of faith.
When Louis and Adria face Louis’ imminent sale, their first instinct is to turn to the Lord for guidance. Louis asks Ruth to remind Adria that the Lord might have other plans for him besides freedom. He doesn’t want her to be heartbroken if she can’t raise enough funds.
Listening to Will, Mrs. Gregory sarcastically asks whether donating to Louis’ freedom fund will earn her eternal salvation. Will suggests that praying for the Lord’s will must be matched with action.
Though she knows she is putting Adria in harm’s way with her request, the hotel cook claims the Lord led her to ask for Adria’s help in bringing her daughter north. When Logan tries to defend his actions to Adria, she reminds him that God is his final judge. Throughout the book, characters lean on the power of fervent prayer.
Louis’ and Matilda’s teachings have a lasting effect on Adria. Ruth provides for Adria but doesn’t attempt to take her mother’s place. Ruth offers advice to Adria but never directly tells her what she should or shouldn’t do. As Adria struggles to conform her ideas and feelings to society’s standards for women, she internalizes Ruth’s directions and opinions and attempts to act in whatever way Ruth would.
Louis is careful to obey George, even when he doesn’t agree with him. Though he is given many opportunities to escape, Louis remains to serve not only his master but the entire town.
Adria remembers a sunny afternoon when she and Carlton kissed at a nearby lake, which was the last time she remembers not arguing with him. After rescuing Willeena from the fire, Ruth agrees to marry Will, and the two share a kiss.
Slavery: In this time and location in American history, slavery is the accepted norm.
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