78 pages 2 hours read

Richard Peck

The River Between Us

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


The River Between Us by Richard Peck is a young adult historical fiction novel about the Civil War. Peck was the author of over 35 novels for children and young adults and won a Newberry Medal, Newberry Honor, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Christopher Medal. The River Between Us, published in 2003, won the Scott O’Dell Award and was a National Book Award finalist. The book deals with pride in identity and heritage, the perception of time, and the effects of war. This guide refers to the Puffin Books 2003 edition.

Content Warning: The River Between Us depicts or addresses racism, enslavement, graphic violence, and death by suicide.

Plot Summary

In the summer of 1916, 15-year-old Howard Leland Hutchings, his father, and his five-year-old twin brothers travel from their home in St. Louis, Missouri, to visit Howard’s father’s parents, aunt, and uncle. Howard’s extended family lives together in “the homeplace” in Grand Tower, Illinois, atop a hill called the Devil’s Backbone. In Grand Tower, Dad spends most of his time with his ailing aunt, Delphine. The twins trail after their great-uncle Noah, who has only one arm. Howard’s grandfather, Dr. Hutchings, Sr., mostly naps. This leaves Howard to Grandma Tilly, who is Noah’s twin sister and the wife of Dr. Hutchings, Sr. Beginning in Chapter 2, Grandma Tilly takes over as narrator and tells Howard her family’s story of surviving the Civil War and how the family members ended up living together.

In 1861, the Pruitt family lives in the house atop the Devil’s Backbone. This includes Mama, 15-year-old Tilly, her quiet but restless twin brother, Noah, and their 12-year-old sister, Cass, who has a supernatural ability to see ghosts of the past and tragedies that haven’t happened yet. A steamboat from the south brings two mysterious strangers to Grand Tower: the flamboyant Delphine Duval and the quiet Calinda. Mama invites the two young women to stay with the Pruitts in the house atop the Devil’s Backbone, which changes all the characters’ lives.

The family, along with Delphine and Calinda, falls into a happy routine. Delphine’s confidence rubs off on Mama and Tilly. Her beauty keeps Noah nearby. Calinda is supernaturally gifted like Cass and brings her out of her shell. Although many people in town believe that Delphine and Calinda are spies for the South, the family is happy that their guests arrived when they did. However, the start of the Civil War changes this.

On the night of his and Tilly’s 16th birthdays, Noah leaves to join the Union Army. Mama is distraught without him, and when she believes that he is sick, she sends Tilly to nurse him and bring him home. Though Tilly has never left Grand Tower, she and Delphine travel to Cairo, Illinois, where the Union Army is stationed. With help from the handsome Dr. Hutchings, Tilly and Delphine nurse Noah and many other sick Union soldiers back to health. Instead of returning home with Tilly and Delphine, Noah fights in the Battle of Belmont, where he loses his left arm.

In the meantime, Delphine reveals that she is a gens de couleur, a free woman of color, and Calinda is her sister, not an enslaved person, as Tilly believed. Free women of color in New Orleans have homes and families with white men but are not legally allowed to marry them. Instead, these men enter into agreements with them, providing the women with homes, land, and protection. However, it is common for the men to have separate white families as well. Delphine’s mother feared that the war would destroy their society and sent Delphine and Calinda to the North to create new lives for themselves.

When Noah returns from the Battle of Belmont without his arm, Tilly and Delphine once again nurse him back to health. When he is well enough to travel, the three teens return to Grand Tower together, only to learn that Mama drowned herself in the river when a coffin arrived, believing it to be Noah’s. However, the coffin holds the Pruitts’ long-lost Paw, who left the family years ago and ended up fighting against Noah in the Confederate Army. Dr. Hutchings serves as a doctor for the remaining three years of the Civil War, but he returns to Grand Tower and marries Tilly.

In the final chapter, 15-year-old Howard takes over the narration again. Grandma Tilly tells Howard that Delphine never married Noah, though they lived together for the rest of their lives. After a week, Howard, his father, and the twins travel back to St. Louis. On the road, Howard’s father tells him that he is not Tilly and Dr. Hutchings’s son; his parents are actually Delphine and Noah. Delphine was afraid people would find out that she has African blood and hate her son for it, so she always pretended that her son—Howard’s dad—belonged to Tilly. Howard’s dad says that he hopes Howard can be proud of his heritage, and Howard is.