Black River Falls by Jeff Hirsch explores the titular town in which a virus outbreak has wiped the memories of nearly all its citizens.
About ‘Black River Falls’ by Jeff Hirsch
Seventeen-year-old Cardinal has escaped the virus that ravaged his town, leaving its victims alive but without their memories. He chooses to remain in the quarantined zone, caring for a group of orphaned kids in a mountain camp with the help of the former brutal school bully, now transformed by the virus into his best friend. But then a strong-willed and mysterious young woman appears, and the closed-off world Cardinal has created begins to crumble.
A thrilling, fast-paced work of speculative fiction for teens, from a bestselling author, Black River Falls is an unforgettable story about survival, identity, and family.
‘Black River Falls’ review
The premise for this book immediately grabbed me. In an entire town full of people who have lost every sense of who they are, how does society function? What was the cause of the virus and how does Cardinal live in such a place with all his memories intact?
Within the first 50 pages, I’m already intrigued by both Cardinal and his best friend, Greer. Cardinal is hyper-aware of his surroundings at all times. He must stay vigilant if he wishes to remain free of the virus. Greer, on the other hand, is a series of contradictions. His old life saw him as the school bully, but now he is nothing short of a mother hen. Too kind, too giving, too loving, his new personality is at odds with his old one, but when the occasion arises, Greer is not so far removed from his former life that he isn’t willing to go to war for those he cares about.
This theme of old versus new is prevalent throughout the entire book. When all of your memories, all of your experiences, are wiped away, who do you become? Are you no one, or are you someone else? Can you still claim your past name, your past life, your past actions? Are you accountable for the person you once were, or only for the person you are now? If I were to lose my memories today, would my old self even recognize my new self? Which one is the real me?
It’s a heady topic, and Jeff Hirsch doesn’t pretend to offer an answer. Some are better off in this new life, like Greer, but others are just a shadow of who they once were. Yet there are still glimpses of that former life, enough that sometimes they can almost remember who they once were.
Parallel to this compelling center plot are two minor plots focused on Cardinal’s past. Both revolve around his father and what happened on that fateful night when an entire town was thrown into chaos.
One story is that of Cardinal’s family. He is alone in the woods with Greer and the orphaned kids. Where are his parents, his brother? What happened to them, and will he ever see them again? Why is it when someone brings up his father, creator and writer of the Cardinal comics, they do so in an apologetic, morose sort of way? Why does Cardinal do his best to hide his pain?
The other story is of the comic book superhero himself. The story parallels Cardinal’s father’s life and mood, and as we learn more about Cardinal’s family, we learn more about Cardinal’s namesake. Each story is tragic in its own way, and you find your heart breaking as much for Cardinal, the boy, as you do for Cardinal, the superhero.
I love stories within stories, especially if the secondary story can entrance me as easily as the primary one. Black River Falls does just that, and offers up a potent balance of action and intellect.