cover image River Angel

River Angel

A. Manette Ansay. William Morrow & Company, $24 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-688-15243-7

In the small town of Ambient, Wis., expressions of Christian faith range from intense to transitory, from the rituals of a traditional Catholic church to a women's prayer and support group called ""Circle of Faith,"" Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers and on down to the non-believers. In clear, emotionally intense prose, Ansay (Sisters) delivers the story of the mysterious death of a 10-year-old boy named Gabriel Carpenter through the eyes of townspeople of varying beliefs, motivations and behaviors. Recently abandoned by his wayward father to the reluctant care of an aunt and uncle in Ambient, Gabriel doesn't adjust well: his weak social skills, overt piety and constant search for the river angel (which, according to town legend, protects people who have fallen into the river) quickly make him a target for playground humiliation. One night, while Gabriel is walking over the bridge near where the angel supposedly resides, a carload of drunken teenagers chase and corner him, and somehow he disappears. It is unclear if he falls or is pushed off the bridge; but his body appears later, dry, still warm, but dead, in a barn a mile downstream. The consensus of townspeople is that he was carried there by the river angel, and a shrine springs up at the barn, drawing visitors from all over the state. The industry activated by these pilgrims who buy loads of souvenir angel T-shirts and ""I Believe"" bumper stickers revitalizes Ambient's failing economy; it's a miracle of sorts. As in her previous novels, Ansay displays a gift for rendering the dynamics of small-town life and the minute calibrations of human relationships. Here, out of the individual residents of Ambient and a broad chorus of voices, each one grappling with the human craving for the divine, she fashions a striking story about the ironies faith. (Apr.)