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BITTER RIVER by Julia Keller: Book Review

Bell Elkins is a small-town girl who has made good.  She managed to leave the coal-mining town of Acker’s Gap, where she grew up in a motherless home with an abusive father, get herself a law degree, and work in Washington, D. C. with her husband.  A perfect professional and personal life, it would seem.

But after a few years, Acker’s Gap, with all its problems of poverty, unemployment, and drug use drew her back.  Bell felt she could make a difference there that she couldn’t in the nation’s capital.  So she and her daughter returned to West Virginia, a place her husband, a highly successful attorney, was only to happy to leave behind.

A second reason for returning home for Bell is her superstition/belief that her older sister would someday return there to find her.  Shirley had protected Bell from their father’s sexual advances during her childhood, and when it became impossible to continue doing that, Shirley murdered their father and set fire to their home.  Shirley was released from prison two years before this novel opens but never returned to Acker’s Gap; Bell fears that if she left town permanently, her sister would never be able to find her.

As Bitter River, the second book in this series, opens, Bell is driving home from Washington.  During the trip, she receives a call from Nick Fogelsong, sheriff of Raythune Country and a close friend.  The body of Lucinda Trimble has been found in the Bitter River.  Lucinda, a shining academic and sports star at the local high school, was dead before her car hit the water, Nick says, so this is not an accident.  It’s murder.

Although still in high school, Lucinda was engaged to Shawn Doggett, son of the town’s wealthiest family.   The Doggetts, particularly Mrs. Doggett, were less than thrilled with this, especially given the fact that Lucinda was pregnant and was resisting all attempts by the Doggetts and her own mother to give the baby up for adoption.

While all this is going on, an old friend of Bell’s, Matt Harless, a CIA agent, presumably retired, has come to town for a brief respite.  He tells Bell he remembers her talking about her town, about the beauty of the mountains, and he’s decided that a visit is what he needs before he makes any future plans.  But strange things start happening shortly after his arrival, leaving Bell to wonder if they’re coincidental or somehow related to Harless.

Julie Keller paints a vivid picture of Acker’s Gap and the people in it.  It’s a place that, on the surface, seems removed from the rest of 21st-century America, but a deeper look reveals the same problems that the rest of the country has–high school dropouts, high unemployment, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

Bell Elkins is a tough, determined protagonist.  Her roots in her home town are strong, even with the memories of the abusive childhood she and her sister shared.  This novel makes me hope that the third entry in the series won’t be long in coming.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this web site.

You can read my post of A Killing in the Hills, the first in the Bell Elkins series, on this blog.  Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.






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