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Go as a River: Summary and Characters Explained

go as a river discussion guide

Go As a River is a novel written by Shelley Read in 2023, with the story unfolding in the 1960s in Iola, a mountain town submerged by the Blue Mesa Dam construction.

The story revolves around the displacement of Iola’s multigenerational family farmers, focusing on Victoria Nash, a fictional peach farmer experiencing relocation and loss.

Go as a River by Shelley Read
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Shelley Read, a fifth-generation Coloradoan and former literature lecturer, makes her debut with this international bestseller, now set to be adapted into a film.

Summary | Characters Explained | Characters List

Go as a River Summary

In 1948, 17-year-old Victoria Nash encounters Wilson Moon, also known as Wil, on her way to Iola from her family’s peach farm. Wil, an Indigenous American who escaped a challenging life in coal mines, invites her to join him.

They head to town, where Victoria’s older brother, Seth, publicly hurls racial slurs at Wil. Victoria takes her intoxicated brother home, but on the way, she injures her ankle. Wil, following at a distance, helps her, carrying her home. When they arrive, Seth attacks Wil, leading to a scuffle until their father intervenes, demanding Wil’s departure.

Iola’s residents show similar bigotry, expelling Wil from the local hotel for using the restroom and falsely accusing him of theft. A reward is offered for Wil’s capture, prompting Seth to seek revenge. Forrest Davis, a farmhand working on Victoria’s family farm, joins the pursuit. While Victoria thinks Wil left for his safety, she discovers he stayed, hiding at Ruby-Alice’s place, an elderly woman believed by locals to have a mental illness.

Despite the looming dangers, Victoria and Wil persist in their clandestine rendezvous. Wil becomes Victoria’s first love, and their nights are spent in the seclusion of his mountain hut. The plot thickens when Wil unexpectedly goes missing, raising Victoria’s anxiety. Seth’s return with blood-stained hands confirms her worst fears. Later, news of a gruesome incident involving the death of an Indigenous boy adds to the complexities, fueled by societal prejudices against Wil.

Time passes, and Victoria, grappling with her pregnancy, fears for her child’s safety. Unable to conceal her condition any longer, she escapes to Wil’s remote hut to give birth alone. The challenging ordeal initially makes the baby appear stillborn, but Victoria revives the child using a technique learned from Wil. Weakened and hungry, Victoria plans to seek help in town, but an encounter with a couple in the woods alters her course. Hoping for adoption, she leaves the baby in their car, marked by a Nash family peach on a boulder.

Upon returning home, Victoria expects familiarity but finds her family torn apart. Seth’s revelation at their father’s funeral unveils his involvement in Wil’s murder. Though released due to insufficient evidence, Seth faces warnings to leave town. Victoria, enduring societal backlash, accepts the government’s offer to buy her farm for a new dam project.

In 1954, as the dam threatens Iola’s existence, Victoria relocates her family’s cherished peach trees to Paonia for a fresh start. Before her departure, Seth confesses that Davis, not he, killed Wil. Victoria, wielding a gun, compels Seth to leave, severing their ties forever.

In the small town of Paonia, Victoria attempts to move forward with her life, but a lingering guilt pulls her back to the very spot where, 12 years earlier, she had left her baby in the woods. In an effort to create a memorial for her child, she arranges 12 rocks in a circle, each symbolizing a year of his life. Over the next eight years, she adds a new rock annually. Just as she loses hope of ever reuniting with her son, a surprising discovery awaits her during one last visit—a letter from the woman who took in her child.

The letter introduces the woman as Inga, disclosing that she and her husband raised Victoria’s baby as their own, naming him Lukas. Throughout Lukas’s upbringing, Inga kept his true origin a secret. It wasn’t until he faced conscription for the Vietnam War that she revealed the truth, attempting to spare him from the conflict by exposing the falseness of his birth certificate.

However, this revelation led Lukas to enlist willingly, seeking a sense of belonging after the shock of learning about his past. Distressed by the situation, Inga writes to Victoria, pleading for assistance in unraveling the mysteries of Lukas’s history.

Victoria, fearing Lukas’s potential anger, decides to meet him to mend their relationship and embrace a second chance at motherhood. As Lukas steps out to meet her, she is struck by the uncanny resemblance between him and someone named Wil. The novel concludes as they walk towards each other, embarking on a new chapter in their lives.

Go as a River Characters Explained

Victoria Nash

Victoria, nicknamed “Torie” in her youth, serves as the protagonist and narrator in the novel, set against the backdrop of the 1950s-70s Blue Mesa also known as “Torie” in her younger years.

Victoria starts as a quiet and obedient girl on a run-down farm with three male family members, following a tragic accident that claimed her mother, aunt, and cousin. This early hardship fuels her determination to survive against the odds. To fulfill her mother’s role, she becomes the farm’s domestic worker. When she meets Wil, his love transforms her, helping her mature into a more confident woman.

Wil’s death revives her fear, and she retreats from her newfound identity until her pregnancy prompts her to act courageously. Victoria becomes secretive and self-reliant, escaping to the wilderness to give birth without anyone knowing. The isolation of motherhood and her heartbreaking abandonment of her child become integral to her secretive adult identity.

Even in her later years, Victoria remains a shy and private person, deeply connected to nature and the memory of Wil. Discovering Inga’s letter becomes a turning point, leading to her final transformation and a chance to build a relationship with her son Lukas.

Seth

Seth, Victoria’s younger brother, is the main troublemaker in the story. He’s described as volatile and menacing, “built like a boxer in body and temper.” His instability and violent tendencies become apparent early on after losing his mother and cousin in an accident.

Despite Victoria’s attempts to guide and save him from mischief, Seth’s hateful attitude and destructive behavior persist. As they grow older, Seth and his friends pose a threat to Victoria, increasing her fear and anger.

When Seth betrays Wil’s location to Forrest Davis, resulting in Wil’s murder, Victoria and their father believe Seth is guilty of the crime. Although Seth later claims to be a witness rather than the perpetrator, Victoria can’t forgive him for his role. When Victoria leaves for a new home in Paonia, she cuts ties with Seth, stating he no longer exists to her.

Victoria and Seth respond differently to loss and grief, shaping their adult identities in contrasting ways. Seth’s anger leads him to a path of violence, losing empathy after his mother’s death. Symbolized by two ornamental crosses, one broken and the other made of sticks, Seth struggles with a split identity.

When he returns to Iola as an adult, he appears weathered and desperate for a connection to Victoria and their past, but she cannot forgive him. The novel explores the healing power of love and connection, contrasting Victoria’s forward-moving journey with Seth’s isolated and stagnant life.

Wilson Moon

Wil is an Indigenous American teenager who escapes to Iola by train after working in a coal mine. The novel doesn’t reveal much about his family or tribe connections, but it’s known he ran away from an Indigenous children’s boarding school in Albuquerque. Wil has dark, gentle eyes, tan skin, and straight black hair, reflecting his manual labor background. He’s described as sweet and kind but mentally and physically tough from facing racism-driven violence in his nomadic life.

Despite not seeking trouble, Wil defends himself when attacked by Victoria’s brother, Seth. Instead of fleeing town for safety when a reward is posted for his arrest, he chooses to pursue his love for Victoria. Unfortunately, this decision leads to his brutal murder in a hate crime orchestrated by a local boy named Forrest Davis, with Seth’s involvement. Wil’s character arc mirrors the historical forced migration of Indigenous people, adding to the novel’s exploration of the damaging legacy of racism.

Flashbacks reveal Wil’s character through his brief romance with Victoria. He’s remembered as sensitive and almost magical, with the ability to heal injuries and seemingly revive a stillborn puppy. Victoria uses Wil’s wisdom after his death, drawing upon his knowledge to navigate the wilderness and finding shelter in his old hut.

Wil’s approach to life encourages Victoria to move forward despite her grief and loss, symbolized when she holds dirt in both hands, mirroring his appreciation for the present moment. Victoria carries Wil’s legacy and memory forward after his tragic death.

Ruby-Alice

Ruby-Alice serves as a mother figure to Victoria, and their evolving relationship unveils the damaging legacy of racism and the ways people find healing. Initially, Victoria sees Ruby-Alice through the lens of inherited bigotry, considering her a strange outcast. Despite her mother’s negative teachings about Ruby-Alice, Victoria questions the town’s hypocrisy, wondering why they need help from the Lord and not Ruby-Alice.

As Ruby-Alice extends kindness to Wil, rejected by the town, Victoria’s bias leads her to dismiss Ruby-Alice. However, discovering Ruby-Alice’s traumatic loss changes Victoria’s perspective, making her feel ashamed of her prejudiced behavior. Ruby-Alice’s true kindliness is revealed when she helps Victoria and, in return, Victoria cares for her in old age.

Ruby-Alice’s peaceful passing contrasts sharply with Victoria’s other losses, and Victoria, having gained a deeper understanding, passes on Wil’s wisdom by telling Ruby-Alice to “go as a river.” This signifies Victoria’s growth and a departure from the town’s bigotry and racism.

Go as a River Characters List

Part I: 1948-1955

  1. Seth: Torie’s brother.
  2. Ogden (Og): Torie’s uncle.
  3. Lyle: A sheriff.
  4. Calamus: Torie’s cousin.
  5. Vivian: Ogden’s wife.
  6. Mrs. Bernett: Torie’s acquaintance.
  7. Victoria Nash (Torie): The protagonist.
  8. Wilson Moon (Wil): Torie’s lover.
  9. Ruby-Alice Akers: Torie’s neighbor.

Additional Characters in Part I:

  • Abel: A horse.
  • Erroll Flynn: Australian-American actor.
  • Basil Rathbone: South African-born English actor.
  • Greer Garson: British-American actress and singer.
  • Olivia de Havilland: British-American actress.
  • Fred Astaire: American dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, and presenter.
  • Jimmy: Ogden’s brother.
  • Edgar Bergen: American ventriloquist, actor, vaudevillian, and radio performer.
  • Charlie McCarthy: Edgar Bergen’s puppet.
  • Mr. Massey: A banker.
  • Dr. Bernett: Mrs. Bernett’s husband.
  • Mr. Jernigan: A store owner.
  • Trout: A dog.
  • Holden Oakley: Seth’s acquaintance.
  • Reverend Whitt: A preacher.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: The 32nd U.S. President.
  • Mad Myrtle: Seth’s neighbor.
  • Matthew Dunlap (Matty): Torie’s acquaintance.
  • Millie Dunlap: Mr. Dunlap’s wife.
  • Mr. Nash: Torie’s father.
  • Chet Oakley: One of Holden’s brothers.
  • Ray Oakley: One of Holden’s brothers.
  • Forrest Davis: Mr. Nash’s new helper.
  • Ezra Martindell: A law officer in Iola.
  • Albert Martindell: Ezra’s father.
  • Cora Mitchell: Torie’s neighbor.
  • Mr. Chapman: A grocery owner.

Part II: 1949-1955

  • Mr. Clifton: Torie’s acquaintance.
  • Baby Blue: Torie’s son.
  • Hollis Henry Nash: Torie’s grandfather.
  • Louise Landon: A school secretary.
  • Seymour Greeley (Greeney): A professor.

Part III: 1955-1970

  • Ed Cooper: A realtor.
  • Lila Harding: Former owner of the house.
  • Mr. Harding: Lila’s husband.
  • Zelda: Ed Cooper’s wife.
  • Carlos: Torie’s neighbor’s son.
  • John F. Kennedy: The 35th U.S. President.

Additional Characters in Part III:

  • Warren Beatty: American actor and filmmaker.
  • Joseph: Ed and Zelda Cooper’s son.
  • Inga Tate: One who took care of Torie’s son.
  • Lukas (Luke): Torie’s child.

Part IV: 1949-1970

  • Paul Ray Tate: Inga Tate’s husband.
  • Maxwell: Inga and Paul Ray’s son (Max).
  • Inga Sabrina Zimmerman: Full name of Inga Tate.
  • Jimmy: Lukas’ acquaintance.
  • Jane: One of Max’s girls.
  • Jillian: One of Max’s girls.
  • Cara: One of Max’s girls.
  • Joan: One of Max’s girls.
  • Kelly: One of Max’s girls.
  • Marguerite: One of Max’s girls.
  • Lisa: One of Max’s girls.

Part V: 1970-1971

  • Emmett Till: African-American boy who was abducted & lynched in Mississippi.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.: American Baptist minister.

Happy reading! ❤️