Bodie & Brock Thoene,
The Galway Chronicles #1:
Only the River Runs Free

(Thomas Nelson, 1997)

Only the River Runs Free is no sentimental, idyllic look at 19th-century Ireland. Often grim and unforgiving, the novel casts in sharp relief the hardships suffered in a time and place dominated by poverty.

Set largely in the span from Christmas 1841 to Christmas 1842, the novel focuses on a poor community in western Ireland and the tenant farmers' struggle to survive under the harsh rule of Britain and the wealthy Irish landlords who prosper through the labors of their countrymen.

The mysterious Joseph Connor arrives in Ballynockanor and takes his place as a priest in training among the close-knit folks of the farming village. But it's obvious he has a secret, and it's equally apparent that his interest in the young widow Kate Donovan is less than priestly.

Is it possible Joseph is the long-lost heir to the Burke lands and fortune, who was presumed drowned at age 8 during a daring getaway from his greedy, grasping uncle Marlowe and his cronies, the corrupt Protestant vicar and the two-faced constable? Well, of course. Being unpredictable is not what this book has going for it.

Sure, the plot follows some familiar lines as Joseph and the Donovan family trudge through a difficult year of tragedy and triumph. And most of the characters are disappointingly two-dimensional, being either wholly good and just or entirely evil and unredeemable. Even the central romance goes about as well as you'd expect in an Irish story.

But Bodie and Brock Thoene aren't writing a book about characters so much as circumstances, and their portrayal of Ireland -- particularly the enmity between Catholics and Protestants, tenants and landlords -- rings true. The story includes small joys and simple pleasures among incredible setbacks and tragedies, ranging from attempted rape and murder to eviction and banishment.

Only the River Runs Free is an absorbing, if sometimes cheerless read. The first book in a series of four, it promises to dig into even darker times as Ireland's people struggle for survival and unity -- a simple ambition readers already know many Irish people failed to achieve.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 31 January 2004

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