River of Ghosts

Magic realism meets myth in the real and imaginary efforts of two small towns in the Cedar Valley when they face encroaching corruption and evil. Hysteria sets in with the murder of an anonymous girl followed by the abduction of a prominent citizen’s daughter. The harassment of a professor’s family and of a much respected farmer quickens the plot. The citizens of an idyllic college town and  the factory and commercial centers of the other town face off in a spiteful mayoral election questioning the possibility of merger. A blizzard, then pounding rain, and torrential flood waters combine to further set the communities of the two river towns on edge, tightening the tension and contributing to the dissolution of morale, marriage, and community. Native American prophecy, involving the return of a mystical sturgeon, becomes real one climactic night in a vigilante chase. Whether restitution is possible remains a question for the towns, the reader, the river, and its ghosts.

“When the sky darkens and rumbles and pelts torrential rain down upon the earth, when La Llorona turns up in streambeds far from her accustomed territory, when ghosts walk among us more alive than many of the living–well, it’s something to pay attention to. Set a dark mystery in motion against that forbidding backdrop, full of academic skulduggery, small-town politics, and everyday indecencies, and things get more interesting still. This is the world in which Robert Gish’s lively story moves, ground on which Stephen King and Willa Cather shake hands and come out swinging. You’ll enjoy the ride.”—Gregory McNamee, author, Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals

“River of Ghosts is a page-turning story of violence and corruption. Memorable characters, and Native American prophecy bring this novel alive. Robert Gish writes with unusual clarity about small towns, their secrets, and hidden histories.”–Nora Gallagher, author, Things Seen and Unseen

River of Ghosts is an ambitious novel in its melding of genres, in its faithfulness to the landscape of its Cedar Valley setting, and in its fearless depiction of corruption thriving beneath a thin university town veneer. But it is a small, almost used up jar of lip balm found beneath the seat of a car during the commission of a horrific act that sends a chill down my spine, and it is with this kind of unexpected detail, offered up with casual ease, that Robert F. Gish sells the story and makes the reader believe.”–J. Harley McIlrath, author, Possum Trot

“Readers uneasy with the term ‘magic realism’ will be comforted by a novel in which, between the poles of the magical and the actual, they will find a clear but unsettling human story. In River of Ghosts, the citizens of an Iowa college community find themselves arrayed against a classic villain–a vandal, sociopath, and murderer. Roused from innocence, academics and townsfolk overcome, though they pay a harsh price. The story is set in the context of Native American myth, and its ending is foretold.”–Robley Wilson, author, Who Will Hear Your Secrets?

“This bucolic college town in Cedar Valley has everything you’d expect from its Iowa heartland setting. But in River of Ghosts, Robert Gish has also given this place everything you wouldn’t expect – professors and a preacher who aren’t what they seem, and a murder mystery that takes flight into the supernatural. Robert Gish drills deeply beneath the bucolic veneer of a state college town in Iowa’s heartland, and finds secrets everywhere. Professors and a preacher are not who they seem, a murderer is on the loose, and Cedar Falls is visited by an ancient mystical presence.”–David Westphal, Former Managing Editor, Des Moines Register

“Robert Gish’s skill at creating memorable characters and a complicated-yet-neat plot are on full display here. The author maneuvers an intriguing cast in this innovative tale, pulling together the strands–many of them dark–of a community and a place. But this is not merely ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ or ‘Peyton Place’ retold, for Gish deftly employs elements of magical realism to suggest wider and deeper meanings. Warning: Once you get started you may not be able to put this novel down.”–Gerald Haslam, award-winning author, including Haslam’s Valley

“With a strong sense of place, and deep comprehension of people we don’t often meet in stories, Robert Gish draws us into a hidden universe of violence and dangerous dreams.”
Julie Salamon, whose books include, The Devil’s Candy and Wendy and the Lost Boys

“Ancient Native American male and female river gods, dreamscapes from a time beyond time, small town murders and revenge plots, local color eccentrics, academics struggling with careers and families–Robert Gish’s large and technicolor canvas of characters and genres all but glows in its display of corruption and redemption. And a tour de force ending that left me breathless.” —Scott Cawelti, author, Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel

“Distinguished author Robert Franklin Gish in River of Ghosts has produced a timeless story set in small-town Middle America and inhabited by picturesque characters who fall prey to moral collapse, political upheaval, and failure of nerve. Compelling and highly recommended.”–Marc Simmons, historian and author, Murder on the Santa Fe Trail

“River of Ghosts explores the disarmingly complex territory of an Iowa region. Mapping the latest trends in American society as well as the ancient legends of Native time, Robert Gish bestows both surface realism and spiritual depth on that territory. The result is a winning combination. Although a series of murders lies at the center of the plot, River of Ghosts is no typical murder mystery. The issue here is not whodunit. We are faced instead with more fundamental questions about who we are, how we inhabit this earth, and what we owe to it and each other. As I read the story, I thought repeatedly about the seductive contours of the Midwest, but also about the inner landmarks of the human heart. It is the rare book that can combine such seemingly disparate appeals. River of Ghosts deserves to be widely read and savored.” –Wayne Franklin, Founding editor, “American Land and Life” series, University of Iowa Press (1990‑2011). Author of the two‑volume biography of American novelist James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (2007) and Absence and Return (forthcoming, 2014).

“For many years Robert Gish has written critical and creative literature of singular intelligence, complexity, and grace. His new novel, River of Ghosts, is an extraordinary meditation on our nation’s immense abundance, vitality, eclecticism – and our eternal undercurrent of displacement, anger, and violence. Halcyon and harrowing, disturbing yet wonderfully lyrical, often elevating, sometimes mephitic, this remarkable book about a place, people, spirit fish, and Gaia will intrigue, provoke, frighten, and delight you. And will give you the best construal of Buffalo Bill you’ll ever encounter.”–Peter Glassman, author, The Dream Chamber; and Permanent Visiting Professor of Culture, People’s Republic of China, President, Sino-American Education Council

“An intriguing, beautifully structured novel, River of Ghosts is that rareity in serious fiction these days: an exciting page-turner.”–Geary Hobson, author of Plain of Jars and Other Stories

“If you read Robert Gish’s River of Ghosts you’ll read a writer at the height of his powers. He has an Iowa landscape for his setting and is particularly strong on its smoky rivers and on the quasi-mythical sturgeon that resides therein, on the seasons of the Midwest, its natural phenomena, and on the people with whom the place is populated. Reminiscent of Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, this novel has behind it a loving, all-inclusive eye, capable of seeing and of speaking for an array of people: a Lutheran pastor and his New Mexican wife, another peeping-tom pastor, a small town detective, a college professor, a seamy drug store owner, a work-bitten, hard-driving turkey farmer, and children . . . the children! At the center of it all is a young neo-Nazi, a sex-driven murderer, who through his crazed pathology has the effect of calling the others out of themselves. I won’t say what happens, but here is a one hell of a story.”–John Keeble, author of Yellowfish, Broken Ground, and the forthcoming The Shadows of Owls

“Readers of this monumental work of fiction, enriched by the author’s scholarly expertise in Ethnic Studies and Western American Literature, will find themselves torn between turning pages under the power of the suspenseful narration, and lingering over the archetypal passages, spot-on dialogue, satiric ironies, insightful social observations, awareness of evil and vanity, and overall good-naturedness. The author’s career has spanned decades of distinguished service as university professor and administrator, pioneering advocate of Ethnic Studies and Native American rights, and versatile authorship in multiple prose genres. The depths of his research and his first-hand experience of racial tensions in America have never, however, detracted from his innate gift for plain, old-fashioned, down-home dramatic entertainment. It will be the rare reader who is not hooked in the first chapter and fully engrossed by the climax and denoument. That was my experience: River of Ghosts is a major and culminating testament to the talent and humanity of a national literary treasure.”–Gerald Locklin, Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Long Beach, and author of over 125 books

Robert F. Gish is an emeritus professor of English and a university distinguished scholar at the University of Northern Iowa where he also served as associate dean of Humanities and Fine Arts. At Cal Poly University he served as Professor and Director of Ethnic Studies. He holds BA, MA, and PhD from the University of New Mexico and holds the honor of the Erna Fergusson Distinguished Alumni Award. He is the author of short story collections, biographies, a memoir, and a Trickster allegory along with many scholarly essays and articles about Native American and Western American  Literature. His is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Many of his writings have appeared in the Des Moines Register and other major dailies. He and his wife live in Albuquerque where he teaches writing and courses in cultural studies. To find out more visit his website

Interview with Robert Gish