by Nicole Wolverton
As a kid I loved anything to do with time travel. One of my favorite movies was Time Bandits. I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Later, I fell in love with Slaughterhouse-Five: if there was ever a patron saint of time-travel-related existential angst, it would be Kurt Vonnegut. It is impossible to imagine how often I contemplated his words about time: “It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.” Who hasn’t wished it were true, that time isn’t linear? At the heart of every time travel novel, from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to The Time Traveler’s Wife, is the wish to return to the past to make the present a better place, and that is why time travel books are so tempting: we can fantasize about correcting our mistakes, our heartbreaks; we can fulfill our wishes.
That’s not to say that every time travel novel is the same. Bee Ridgway’s debut, The River of No Return, is part Regency romance, part science fiction, and part mystery. It plays off Vonnegut’s idea of non-linear time, but twists it in a much different way. Suppose time travel itself has a corporate overlord and warring factions? Thus is the premise of Ridgway’s novel, which was released April 2013 by Dutton.
Bee Ridgway—the pseudonym of Bryn Mawr College English professor Bethany Schneider—pays proper tribute to Vonnegut in The River of No Return. In a recent interview, Ridgway noted that her main character, Nick Falcott, is a “kinder, gentler version of Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five.” So it goes. Falcott is a former aristrocrat from early 1800s England who unintentionally leaps into the river of time, moving forward 200 years, as he’s about to die on a battlefield in Spain.
One moment he was staring at his death, and the next he was in the path of an impossibly bright light bearing down on him with equally impossible speed. Then he was screaming into the roar of a thousand furnaces as the light crashed over him.
When he opened his eyes, that horrible white light still blinded him. But instead of charging toward him, it was glaring from three receptacles that seemed to be affixed to the ceiling of a blank white room. The light hurt his eyes—hurt his entire head. He groaned.
So this was death.
The Guild, the aforementioned overlords of time travel, tell him he’s stuck in the future, teach him how to fit into modern society, and settle him in the U.S. in exchange for his loyalty, his pledge never to set foot back in England, and his promise to keep The Guild a secret. He lives in Vermont and New York, managing farms and cheesemaking operations, and generally doing whatever makes him happy while the Guild funds his lifestyle.
Nick’s story intertwines with that of Julia Percy, granddaughter of the fifth earl of Darchester and Nick’s former next door neighbor back in 1815. The earl, on his deathbed as the novel opens, can play with time; and when Julia’s cousin Eamon, the sixth earl of Darchester, moves in after the earl’s death and tries to discern her grandfather’s secrets, Julia realizes she can manipulate time as well. Eamon goes to great, and physically threatening, lengths to shake the truth from Julia.
Their timelines sync up again when Nick is sent back to 1815 by members of The Guild to fight the organization’s enemies, The Ofan, who are allegedly doing something that could end time all together.
This energetic novel builds a complex world for simple characters living extraordinary lives, and that’s part of what makes this book so appealing. Nick may be a Regency-era noble relocated in time, but he’s accessible to the modern reader. He’s the kind of guy you could meet at a bar, part of the contemporary DIY movement that has produced urban farmers and artisanal food producers. Julia, for all that she should be the typical damsel in distress in a corset and ball gown, has agency enough to thwart the patriarchy to a certain extent. Simple people, but you can hardly call time travelers and time manipulators ordinary. A genre novel this may be, and yet, the characters will seem familiar and believable even to non-fantasy readers.
Modern and Regency-era mores comingle, and spies and double agents abound at every turn. For fans of time travel, Ridgway brings new theories and interpretations to the table—here we have a potential apocalypse brewing, brought on by a mysterious and unnamed thing or event, and neither The Guild nor The Ofan are clear contenders to shoulder the blame. However, it’s also a story about relationships and gender roles.
That Ridgway loves Regency romance is clear. If you’re not familiar, this subgenre of the romance category comprises stories set during the Regency era of England: 1811 to 1820. The main characters are generally members of the aristocracy. While The River of No Return is a mash-up of genres, the rules of Regency romance—historical accuracy of dialogue, etiquette, gender relations, etc.—are the primary indicators. While Nick is very much a modern man, he must rediscover his old self before returning to the 19th century. He, too, must follow the rules of the genre.
Ridgway takes advantage of those rules to explore gender roles and gender politics in her novel. Julia, like all good Regency heroines, gets to stretch the rules somewhat, pushing the outer edges of what is acceptable for women of the period. At twenty-two, the unmarried Julia is practically a spinster, and Eamon seems not to care that he’s ruining her reputation and any chance of marriage by living with her unchaperoned (aside from the umpteen servants). Smart and resourceful, she uses the talents at her disposal to thwart him. And while I liked Julia, it was another character I really enjoyed—Alva Blomgren, a femme fatale if ever there was one. As a courtesan, she has quite a bit more freedom than Julia, and she’s no less intelligent. She also feels more modern, and there’s a reason for that (which I won’t disclose—you must read the novel to find out!).
In an interview at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ridgway notes that academia is not particularly welcoming to those within its ranks who step outside that space to write non-literary genre fiction.
Anything can come under the lens of the scholar and be halfway acceptable as an object of study. But writing the books . . . that’s a bit different. There’s the issue of getting respect from the academy, but more importantly for me is the question of where the two types of writing come from, internally. Because the experience of being a critic distances you from the pleasures of creating the thing that you study. I love criticism, I love academic writing and thinking. This isn’t some sort of salvation narrative where I’m like “oh, now I get to do the thing I love and not the thing I hate.” Not at all. But they are very, very different.
In many ways, Ridgway’s treatment of the women in The River of No Return sets her work up for academic study. Academics studying Regency romance, take note!
Ridgway, born in Amherst, Massachusetts, is the daughter of a Methodist minister and a creative writing instructor. She earned a PhD in Literature from Cornell University. Ridgway spent several years living in the UK and now lives in South Philadelphia.
She began writing The River of No Return the week before her fortieth birthday, citing a need to recapture a sense of living creatively. When asked how she came to recognize the void in her life and the process by which she decided writing was the way through, Ridgway said:
I had fallen into a very deep melancholy. I felt blue all the time. I had recurring memories of how much I used to love sitting on the floor of my room as a kid, working for hours and hours on a drawing. I knew I had to find a way back to that absorption, that complete fulfillment that can come from the process of creating something. I decided I should take a photography class. I bought myself a camera, and signed up for a marvelous class at a local photography studio. I adored it. But when it was done, I didn’t keep taking pictures and I didn’t sign up for another class. The blues really got hold of me and I was worried. I decided to try therapy, which I’d never done before. About six months in, I woke up one morning and just started writing the novel, without any premeditation. It just started roaring out of me. I think it was the combination of the photography class, which had showed me that yes, creativity made me happy, and therapy, which really tore the curtain away from how bummed out I really was. I think my creative side was like a huge, sleeping dragon, and those two things finally prodded it awake—and it woke up breathing fire.
Be on the lookout for more of Ridgway’s sleeping dragon in the future; she’s currently writing the sequel to The River of No Return. So it goes.
Nicole Wolverton is a freelance writer and editor from Philadelphia and serves as Editorial Assistant to Bloom. Her first novel, The Trajectory of Dreams, was published in March 2013 (Bitingduck Press); her short fiction has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, Penduline, and The Molotov Cocktail, among others. She is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Farm to Philly, and can also be found at www.nicolewolverton.com.