RIVER BRAIDS is a multi-generation story that spans 100 years. The family’s struggles are chronicled through the stories of three people: Joe Barton, a promising 1904 Olympic rower, his young love, Annie, and Joe’s grandson, Sonny Barton.
The story opens in 2004 when middle-aged Sonny Barton returns to his hometown on the Mississippi River in order to settle the family estate. Sonny was raised on his Grandpa Joe’s stories about the river. His Grandpa Joe was a local legend but when Sonny discovers that his grandfather’s picture is pasted onto the group photo of the 1904 Olympic Rowing Team Sonny comes to doubt everything that he knew as true. It becomes clear that Joseph was denied a place on the rowing team due to his Native American heritage.
Through the story of Joseph Barton, and young Annie’s letters and diary entries, we learn about Joseph Barton’s place on the Olympic rowing team and the team’s arrival to the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition to participate in the 1904 Olympics. Due to his mother’s American Indian heritage, Joe is told he won’t be allowed to compete with this team. Instead, he is offered a job as an Indian in the Wild West Show, where he is told that he “don’t smell like a injun.”
Joe finds that he doesn’t fit into any world. He was raised in the white middle-class society of his father but finds himself defined by his mother’s heritage. While at the fair he explores this other part of himself with the indigenous peoples who have set up villages in the Ethnology Exhibit.
River Braids weaves together three stories: Sonny’s modern-day journey, Joseph Barton’s 1904 recollections, and Annie’s personal feelings (through diary entries) to chronicle the 100-year history of the Barton clan. Sonny realizes the importance of his heritage as a descendent of a proud Native American line and as the latest link in a generations-long bond with the Mississippi River itself.