The Girl in the River

(This essay first appeared in SOUTH CAROLINA REVIEW in 2009)

I’ve been interested in Ron Rash’s novel Saints at the River from long before it came out in the fall of 2004. Rash is a friend, and I’ve followed his career intimately-from his beginnings as a poet with three collections, Eurika Mill (1998), Among the Believers (2000), and Raising the Dead (2002). He’s also a gifted short fiction writer with three story collections, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth (1994), Casualities (2000), and Chemistry and Other Stories (2007). These six books alone built for Rash a reputation as one of the most acclaimed young poets and short story writers in the region.

It was with the appearance of his first novel, One Foot in Eden, in 2002 that Rash began to draw a much larger readership, not only in the region but nationally. One Foot in Eden won the Novello Festival Prize and was also chosen by NPR’s Radio Reader for performance. It was reviewed far and wide in national media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Booklist, and The Library Journal.

One Foot in Eden is a 1950s murder story set on the Keowee, a river now drowned under Lake Jocassee. His latest novels, Serena (2008) and The World Made Straight (2006) are set 100 miles away in what is now The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in “bloody Madison,” a county west of Asheville bisected by the French Broad River, a place inhabited for generations by Rash’s relatives, and also fertile ground for the dark story he tells there of the changing mountain culture since the Civil War.

Rash has seemed to have from the beginning of his writing career an unswerving knowledge that his deepest strength is his connection to place, and so as his literary territory Rash has often appropriated the Southern Appalachians as his primary setting. As evidence of his standing and importance among Southern writers, he now holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University.

Saints at the River, Rash’s second novel, is what I want to discuss here, or more particularly its relationship to something I know very well and have written often about myself-the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River-and something that really happened there beginning on May 29th1999. This is the tale of how a “true story” became some of the bones of Ron Rash’s compelling novel.

It’s very hard for me to be objective about this story and Ron Rash. He, for me, is one of the voices of the South I’m most passionately interested in. When you are reading Ron Rash you know that the land matters in a deep and particular way that goes even beyond our long human occupation with it. Rash writes about a South that is still place-based, that still has (to steal a phrase from Norman Maclean’s description of early 20th century Montana)  “a little dew on it.”

Because we are friends, and I happened to be working on similar material (in my case a book-length personal narrative about the Chattooga River), I read a draft of Saints at the River early on in 2001 or 2002 and made suggestions for revision, especially about how Ron had portrayed the paddling community on his imaginary Wild and Scenic Tamassee River along the border of South Carolina and Georgia.

When I read Saints at the River in manuscript it was already fully formed and the changes I suggested were mostly superficial-having the river people wear clothes from outdoor clothing manufacturing companies instead of cut-off blue jeans, and giving the guides expensive Teva or Chaco river sandals instead of old tennis shoes and wool socks.

I did suggest a few more changes to his description of the hydrolic at the bottom of the waterfall where much of the action takes place. As a long-time and avid kayaker I wanted Ron to add more precision in the natural workings of the river, and I knew that any reader of the novel who was a boater would want that too. There probably were other things I suggested in the notes I sent back to Rash several years before the novel appeared, but they were all the types of details that gave the novel a little more atmosphere and that’s all.

I engaged with Saints at the River on a level much deeper than friendly proof reader though. From the beginning the book intrigued me much more than other novels by other friends I had read in manuscript. From my first awareness of Ron’s novel-in-progress about the Tamassee River I knew that it would inevitably be compared to the story of the drowning of Rachel Trois, a story I’d followed in great detail because of my research for my own book about the real Chattooga River. There was no way to avoid linking the two together. Why should there be?

The plot of Saints explores the relationship between Maggie Glenn and Allen Hemphill, two journalists sent to cover the drowning of a girl, their ensuing romantic relationship, and the victim’s family’s struggle to recover her body from the Tamassee, a National Wild and Scenic River in the mountainous corner of contemporary South Carolina, in the face of opposition from locals.

In Rash’s novel, Allen and Maggie journey west into the mountains three weeks after the story has already broken into the national media. A young girl in her early teens on vacation with her family has walked into the river above a waterfall in order to “wade into the middle and place one foot in South Carolina and one in Georgia so she can tell her friends back in Minnesota she has been in two states and the same time” (3). She’s swept down stream, drowned, and trapped at the bottom of the powerful falls. For three weeks the river has stayed high and there’s been no success at recovering the body.

The reporter and photographer arrive in the middle of a stand-off: the father wants to bring in a portable dam to help reclaim his daughter’s body from the Tamasee, “the last free-flowing river in the state,” (34) and the local rescue squad wants to wait and let the river drop naturally to a safe level. Luke, a raft guide and the leader of the environmentalists, wants to protect the river and keep to the letter of the law concerning the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that governs the corridor’s management. At a community meeting Luke sets the terms of his involvement by telling the father he understanding the family’s grief, but “I can’t think of a place I’d rather her body be than in the Tamassee. I’d want her to be part of something pure and good and unchanging, the closest then to Eden we’ve got left.”

The story is told from Maggie’s point of view, and the struggle on Wild and Scenic Tamassee River where the girl drowns becomes the backdrop for her own deep and troubled relationship. Maggie is from Tamassee but she has left the mountain community and her family’s connection to it behind to work as a news photographer in the state’s capital city in the midlands.

Rachel Mae Trois was almost 17 when she on the Chattooga River. She was the 35th death on the river since the Forest Service began keeping records in 1970. Trois, from Leesport, Pennsylvania, had come south to hike with friends along the Chattooga River, but the outing ended in tragedy. She slipped while wading in the river and was washed into the middle of the powerful Raven’s Shoot, a class IV rapid on Section IV.

Approximately thirty minutes after Rachel disappeared at Raven’s Chute, a local boater named Tom Cromartie arrived at the scene. It was around 6:45pm when Cromartie saw two young men running along the shore yelling about a girl downstream. One of the men turned out to be Rachel’s boyfriend, a seaman with the U. S. Navy stationed at Charleston, South Carolina. The three of them, along with a few others, had hiked to Raven’s Chute Rapid to play in the river and see the cliff called Raven’s Rock, just downstream from the rapid on the South Carolina side.

Early that Friday evening the Swift Water Rescue Team was called in and attempted a recovery. The Swift Water Rescue Team, made up of personnel from local rescue squads, tried to locate Rachel’s body using Search and Rescue Dogs and the reaction from the dogs indicated that Rachel’s body was lodged in the rapid. The following day, a cable was stretched between two trees, and a Forest Service River Ranger was lowered close to where they thought the body was trapped. The ranger used a long aluminum pole to probe underwater but this failed to locate the body.

The following Saturday, an underwater camera was mounted on the aluminum pole and worked into position to scan the rapid. The rescuers believed they saw a body lodged in the rapid, near the center, eight feet below the surface, in heavy current. Others saw the images and thought they saw shadows with strands of vegetation waving in the current.

After these recovery efforts, the Swift Water Rescue Team made a pivotal decision to delay any further attempts to recover Rachel’s body until water levels had dropped. The Trois family was informed and went home to Pennsylvania.

Had enough been done to recover their daughter’s body quickly? Questions about how much could be done on a Wild and Scenic River to perform a rescue had come up before on the Chattooga. Attempts to recover a body had been abandoned a decade and a half earlier at anther rapid downstream from Raven’s Shoot called Crack in the Rock. After a series of drownings there an effort was mounted to seal the slot with concrete. The plan was abandoned. The list of spots where terrible drownings could happen on the Chattooga is endless.

After Mr. Trois went home to Pennsylvania he contacted a company in New Jersey called “Portadam.” The company offered to set up a portable dam on the Chattooga. The father contacted his congressman, who contacted Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Senator Thurmond requested the Forest Service issue a permit to Portadam to install the dam on the Chattooga.

Buzz Williams, Executive Director of the Chattooga Conservancy, learned of the plans to install the portable dam, and on Tuesday June 22nd he immediately met with the Forest Service District Ranger in South Carolina to find out the status of the recovery efforts. He says it was not something he wanted to do. He had been a river guide and a River Ranger for the Forest Service. ” I’d had my fill of search and recovery operations,” he said later. It was not his business, “unless it involved violations of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and other conservation issues.”

“In 1989, after the proposal to plug Left Crack,” Williams says, “the Office of General Counsel ruled that alteration of bedrock in the Chattooga River would be a violation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. This Act mandates that these wild places must be left unaltered by the hand of mankind, and managed for an experience to include challenge, risk and adventure.”

This issue of altering the bedrock became the crux of the struggle to recover Rachel Trois. Drilling the holes in the river to install the dam was not a problem for others. “What was proposed was the drilling of ½” holes out of site-underwater,” Dave Perrin, manager of the NOC Chattooga Outpost, says. “This became ‘altering the bedrock’ to those opposed to the dam.”

Perrin was right in the case of Chattooga Conservancy. The crux of the disagreement between the Forest Service and Chattooga Conservancy was the clause in the contract with Portadam that allowed for the use of a jackhammer to drill holes in the river bedrock, to secure the dam. Williams protested “on the spot. ” Williams was opposed to the dam at first, but he was willing to give it a try, if it could be installed with sandbags and rock climber’s chocks and slings instead of bolts drilled into the bed rock. The Forest Service decided to allow Portadam to proceed with the drilling. The next day Buzz protested the violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and was told that Portadam, not the Forest Service, now had control of the recovery operation.

Outfitters provided staff to help install the dam. The outfitters involved in all phases of planning and installation had the biggest stake in maintaining a safe, floatable river. The river was rising that day, but the holes were drilled anyway. Soon after, due to rising water and poor site selection, the dam failed to direct enough water away from the drowning site. Rachel’s body was not found. Buzz says he worried about the whole thing washing downstream into the rapid, “creating a steel strainer,” but to everyone’s relief, it didn’t.

On July 6th, there was a public meeting in Long Creek, South Carolina. “This time, media came from everywhere,” Williams says. “Two local television stations showed up with remote broadcasting vans, and there was also extensive coverage from radio and print media.” Senator Thurmond had faxed a letter stating his position. The Forest Service District Ranger stated that there should be no further attempts at recovery, until the water dropped. Then Senator Thurmond’s letter was read. The senator said, “If in fact we determine that this river is such a threat, I would be willing to introduce legislation to restrict access, particularly commercial rafting, thereby preventing additional tragedies.”

On July 19th, officials issued a press release stating that they believed the body was not in Raven Chute anymore. Officials would now focus the search downstream of the rapid utilizing dive teams from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and Search and Rescue Dog teams, but when the teams found no remains downstream, they shifted their search back to Raven Chute.

The next Friday, the Forest Service decided to grant Portadam a second permit for one more attempt to divert the Chattooga. Portadam agreed to work with Buzz this time to find another way to secure the dam, and the recovery attempt was set for Wednesday, July 28th.

That day everyone worked together to place the frames of the dam directly above the slot in the middle of the rapid. “The triangular frames were seated with their tail ends jammed against protruding rocks,” Williams explained. “Back brace poles were anchored in the small potholes behind the frames. Sandbags were used to level the river bottom so the frames would be evenly seated, and easier to bolt together. Other sandbags were used to buttress the ends of the system, and to plug trough-like irregularities running under the frames. This would stop additional current from flowing under the frames.”

As the work proceeded on the dam upstream dive teams searched the eddies below the rapid. About midmorning, someone said in a low voice over William’s shoulder, “I think the divers are finding something below.” Within an hour, bones, presumed to be the remains of Rachel Trois, were found 15 yards downstream from the rapid. The TV cameras were turned off. Everyone stopped their work and silently watched the recovery. Rachel’s parents were present and they stood in the shadows holding each other, quietly weeping.

The dam was completed and held firm. “We all peered over the top of the dam to see an almost eerie sight below,” Williams remembered. “What had once been a rapid cascading through a deep trough was now exposed bedrock, covered with a carpet of lush green moss-like aquatic plants that were teaming with the larvae of mayflies, midges and stoneflies. On the rocks barren of vegetation were combs of egg cases cemented in clusters of various geometric patterns.” Williams says that ” the juxtaposition of the strange beauty behind the dam against the horrible scene of the body bag on the rocks below was almost more than the senses could bear.”

After it was pronounced to be safe, rescuers made their way around the dam. In the slot where it was assumed Rachel had drowned was a thick piece of driftwood lodged between two rocks. It was most likely a beaver log about 5 inches in diameter, and draped around it was a bright green and blue print piece of cloth. Williams removed the cloth from the strainer.

Those present decided to remove the strainer from the undercut rock. They tied a rope around the wood, easily pulled it out, and it fell into the pool below. In late July the remains of Rachel Trois went home with her parents.

Fiction has often used the skeleton of reality to draw the taut skin of its stories over. Aristotle thought of plot over 2000 years ago as structural, the details of plot, character, and theme working like the spinal column and bones holding up all else. The other elements of a good story-its language, its spectacle-are of secondary levels of importance to plot, character, and theme.

Anyone who has read Saints at the River can see in its plot many of the bones of the Rachel Trois story-the similarities to the drowning at Raven’s Shoot, the breaking on the national scene of the story, drawing journalists much like Allen Hemphill and Maggie Glenn from far and wide, the town meeting in Tamassee, the installation of a portable dam and the protests of the “environmentalists,” and the drama on the banks of a wild and scenic river as the story plays itself out.  These parallel “plot points,” the backbone of the skeleton, are undeniable.

There are also undeniable differences in the story Rash creates, and these can be seen most clearly in the alteration of the resolution at the river. In Rachel’s case her parents go home to Pennsylvania with only a few fragments of their daughter. In Saints at the River there is a long complex recovery scene at the river in which a local rescue diver drowns looking for the girl’s body. Later, the rescue diver’s bereaved brother throws a dynamite charge into the pool, reverting to a local, old-style technique for recovering the dead. Luke tries to retrieve the charge, but after it explodes before he approaches it. Luke is not hurt and the girl’s body and the body of the dead rescue worker rise “from the pool’s depth into the light.” In Saints at the River, Ron Rash offers a resolution unavailable in the actual events on the Chattooga, one that many local people would understand and see as sensible.

Though the story of Saints at the River has the bones of reality unpinning it, there is never any doubt to a reader that Rash’s novel you are in the country of fiction. He develops compelling characters, some made up completely and at least one a composite of people involved in the actual battle over the drowning of a young woman on vacation from Pennsylvania.

Journalist Allen Hemphill and photographer and Tamassee expatriot Maggie Glenn are like no one I know associated with the real Chattooga River, though Luke, the “environmentalist,” is considered by some to be a composite character. The fictional Luke takes qualities and political positions not dissimilar to those of three of the strongest personalities found in the Chattooga watershed at the time of the Trois drowning. Some say Luke is like Buzz Williams, the founder and Executive Director of Chattooga Conservancy; others say he’s a composite of Buzz, Bruce Hare, the former owner of the Chattooga Whitewater shop, and Butch Clay, writer, photographer, and board member for the South Carolina Forest Watch. No one who knows the Chattooga community and the events that took place in the summer of ’99 would deny Luke has some of these men in his fictional DNA.

It is in theme where Saints at the River also varies from reality as well. As a good fiction writer Ron Rash worked to keep his book from being a melodrama. Rash keeps the political aspects of the recovery in the background. He keeps the reader focused on the personal-Maggie’s struggle to come back home, Allen’s fear of intimacy, Luke’s unwavering love for the river. “Luke believed you saw the essentials in black and white, that color was nothing more than decoration and distraction,” (95) Maggie says of how Luke taught her to use a camera.

The same could be said about how many of the real, not imaginary, environmentalists see issues on the Chattooga River. The lines they draw are often seen as hard and harsh. They are often seen as favoring protection of the river at any cost and opposing those who see a need to soften hard lines in favor of human compassion. It was the battle over this line that produced the energy and power of both the story of Rachel’s drowning and Rash’s Saints at the River.

It’s now closing in on a decade since the drowning, and it’s becoming harder to draw conclusions about the differences and similarities between Rash’s story and the real one. Maybe that’s a good thing. Fiction often takes precedence over documentary fact as a way of building what we believe to be true about the world. The popular imagination often creates its own history out of the fictional world of plays, novels, and films. Some examples would be our understanding of kings and queens of England we get from William Shakespeare, the Salem witch hunts as seen through Arthur Miller, the war in Vietnam through the eyes of Francis Ford Coppola, or the Kennedy assassination as told by Oliver Stone.

Ron Rash’s novel Saints at the River gives flesh and immortal life to what happened on the Chattooga in the summer of ’99. It changes the names and shifts the place from a real river to the imaginary Tamassee that is conjured and lives every time we read the novel. It creates characters and has them fall in love, plead for the river, ask for the return of their drowned daughter. It never claims to be a documentary account of the drowning of a living girl in a real place. It is a story, pure and simple.

But what is the truth? There are a handful of news stories in newspaper archives, and one detailed print source-Buzz Williams’ personal account of the incident published in the fall of ’99 in his organization’s newsletter, Chattooga Quarterly, from which I constructed a great deal of the account related here.

“It doesn’t matter to me that Ron Rash used the bones of the story to make his own,” Buzz Williams has said with me in conversation. “What bothers me most is that the true story of what happened down there is even better than the one he made up, and it hasn’t been told to as wide an audience.”

Could it be? Someone could write a nonfiction book about it, a sort of an Into the Wild for the lower 48 if the researcher could get the key players-the dead girl’s parents and boyfriend, the rescuers, the politicians-to talk. But to some who love the power of the imagination, there is no guarantee it would not be as good as the story Ron Rash makes up, a story of love, life and death on the Tamassee River.

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