Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Jenny Milchman's Ruin Falls

Ruin Falls.  Jenny Milchman.  Ballantine, 2014.  Hardback: ISBN 978-0-345-54907-5. $26.  339 pp.

Ruin Falls is about children.  And mothers.  And fathers.  About how hard it is in 2014 to make a good marriage and to be a good parent.  It’s also about fear, especially fear for your children.  

Liz Daniels and her husband Paul haven’t made a road trip together since their children, Reid, eight, and Ally, six, were born.  Hence the first line: “The children had never been this far from home before.”  Hence the dedication: “This one is for my children, Sophie and Caleb, who know all about dreams and have done so much for this one.”

The Daniels family is headed into western New York state in the summer to visit Paul’s parents, from whom he is alienated.  They stop at a hotel for the night, and in the morning the children are gone.  The agony of Liz is unimaginable, but Jenny Milchman easily imagines and presents it so that you’re there.  It becomes clear that Liz is extremely dependent on Paul.  When Paul also disappears, she almost can’t function.  Add to that, her new clarity: Paul took the children.  We had learned that Paul had extreme views on what the family should eat (avoiding sugar, caffeine, corn and other genetically modified and processed foods) and wear (no cheap clothes or goods manufactured by children in poor countries).

Liz knows their children cheat on their strict diet, and even she sometimes lets them have sweets, which Paul forbids.  The boy Reid has, by age eight, becomes a skilled pickpocket enabling him to pilfer gum from his classmates or remove the wallets of strange men (for practice only; he doesn’t keep them).  So we know this isn’t quite your “normal” nuclear family, if that still exists.

The story that follows takes us through all the stages of Liz emerging from a serious dependence on Paul’s belief in himself and his idealism and on the emotional support of her best friend Jill, to her finding within herself the confidence and competence she needs to solve a crime that the law and the police can’t help her with. 

She’s still married, though she no longer wants to be, and she doesn’t know where her children are.  To find them, she has to outwit her missing husband and learn more about him than she ever bothered to know before.

In these climate change years we all live with more heat and cold than our bodies easily cope with.  Jenny’s first book, Cover of Snow, takes place in an icy, chilling world of northern New York state.  Ruin Falls begins in the plains of western New York state in summer when it’s too hot, sweaty, and sticky.  

I loved how the earth and its fruits are presented here--the trees, the soil, the healthy food that Liz and Jill in their Roots farm business have learned to grow.  Even six-year-old Ally misses trees when they leave home and already has a green thumb.

We meet other parents and their children in situations where mothers and fathers are coping badly and are putting their children at risk.  The book begins with a seemingly normal family off on its vacation and gradually changes until we are in a surreal universe, one in which our conscious, normal life is turned upside down, and we have to live with our worst fears becoming the reality.

Jenny has taken on our contemporary American dilemma as our government allows large corporations the freedom to dominate what we eat and what we buy, while parents try to raise healthy, independent-minded children who can cope in an increasingly difficult “real” world.

If every novel has a moral, which once was true and still often is, and Good in fiction can still win out over Evil, then Jenny’s moral is to love, respect, and cherish your children, and teach them to think for themselves as well as to love and care for our earth and for other people.  We need more books like this one.


Jenny Milchman lives with her husband and two children in upstate New York when she isn’t traveling on the world’s longest book tour.  In 2013, when her debut novel Cover of Snow came out, she and her family traveled for seven months, putting 35,000 miles on their car and visiting independent and mystery bookstores all over the U.S.  This year, after Ruin Falls came out in April, they have been on a four-month tour.  They were here in the Triangle area of central North Carolina over the July 4 weekend, where she read at McIntyre’s in Pittsboro, and they return here for Jenny to read at Flyleaf books in Chapel Hill on August 20, 7 PM, and at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on August 22 at 7:30 PM.  We always feel lucky to have Jenny and her family visiting us.  You can follow her trip schedule on her website:


  1. Judy, thank you so much for this review, which puts into words much of what I hoped would like under the novel, but hadn't really been articulated before.

    This one is for my kids, as you point out, but in some deep ways tied to your own life, this one is also for you.

  2. Thank you, Jenny. That's an amazing tribute. I'm honored. I see also how your travels through this country, meeting so many people, listening to them, and now articulating much that we Americans worry about these days. Bless you for that and also for understanding what I try to do here on my small farm as I grow food and write and try to stay healthy and sane! Judy Hogan

  3. Jenny, it was so nice meeting you at The Learned Owl in Hudson. I have two book club books I'm reading, but I'm also squeezing in RUIN FALLS and am totally hooked. I see where you got your idea for this book traveling with your family as you do, but I'm sure your husband is nothing like Paul. :-)