In a span of less than ten pages, Daniel Woodrell’s short story “Returning the River” (published in the author’s 2011 collection The Outlaw Album) establishes a family saga worthy of a Faulkner epic. Just as impressively, Woodrell also manages to give an original twist to the traditional mob scene.
Playing the angry villager here is Harky Dewlin, who uses a torch “made of a baseball bat and a wadded sheet” soaked in kerosene to raze the house of an outsider. Interestingly, though, the arsonist barely knows the victim–“a man named Gordon Mather Adams, a retired schoolteacher of some sort.” It’s his domicile alone (“a shiny new log cottage”) that has been deemed offensive, and gradually Woodrell reveals why. The oft-imprisoned Harky offers a “spectacular act of penance” for his own wayward life, and sends a gift to his father by burning down the house that blocks the sickly man’s view of the natural scene. Harky returns the river to his dying father’s line of sight as the man spends his final days languishing in an upstairs bedroom.
The father–who pathetically chases Harky from the blazing crime scene–doesn’t appear enamored by the incendiary gesture, but Harky’s act of mob-like violence does expand into a family affair. His mother not only refuses to call in the fire department afterward, but revels in the observed immolation: “Mother had been angry since the foundation [of the neighbor’s obstructing house] had been poured, the first nail driven, and clapped her hands with gusto as the hot ruin spread.” Also, Harky has deliberately waited to act until his younger brother, the story’s narrator, is home for the holidays and thus can bear witness to the torching (placing the narrator in the role of almost-accomplice). The story ends with the siblings running off together, but their escape into the nearby woods as the police prepare to give chase isn’t the desperate flight of fugitives but a happy excursion across the ancestral lands their family lost possession of long ago.
Succinct yet resonant, Woodrell’s masterful tale shows that a mob scene can center on something other than simple vigilante justice, and spring from motives more complex than mere wrathfulness.