First There Is A River

Written by Kathy Steffen
Review by B. J. Sedlock

This tale is set in 1900 on an Ohio River paddlewheeler. Emma Perkins is married to a violent husband who delights in beating her when she doesn’t please him. After Jared sends their two children away to work for a farmer, Emma hopes that they’ll be safe there, and escapes to her uncle Quentin’s riverboat. She is given the job of cook on the Spirit, winning over the passengers and crew with her culinary prowess. Emma is soon drawn into riverboat life: learning about river navigation, experiencing a race with the rival Ironwood, and being courted by both Gage, the disfigured engineer, and Briggs, the captain. Then Jared comes stalking Emma, and will stop at nothing to make her pay for her desertion.

Steffen’s website says the book was inspired by photos of her great-grandmother’s riverboat days. The river lore is interesting, such as the tactic of suddenly abandoning poor “deck” passengers on the bank when more lucrative cargo became available. Emma and Gage’s romance blows hot and cold, because both fear themselves unworthy: she because Jared’s belittling gibes have undermined her self-esteem, and he because of his physical appearance (the result of a boiler explosion) and lack of education. Some of the other characterizations need more work. Despite Steffen’s giving Jared a troubled background as his motive, I found his unrelentingly evil actions over the top. Other than that, it’s an agreeable mainstream historical with an uncommon setting.