An introduction to River Road:
Emma Parker, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, plans a rosy future with her high school sweetheart from rural Wisconsin. Together they will finish college, marry, and find meaningful jobs—as devout Christians, serving God. Then one fall evening, walking home from campus, Emma is attacked. She is rescued by Berk Demir, a disturbingly handsome guy from her economics study group. Emma’s attacker is her drug-addicted brother, Logan. While her parents believe Logan works and travels throughout Europe, Emma knows Logan’s secret: he is in Minneapolis, homeless, and desperate enough to steal from his sister. Berk is the only one who knows Emma’s despair. As she begins to fall in love with Berk, she discovers another complication: Berk’s family is Muslim.
Read an excerpt ↓
Praise for River Road:
“College student, Emma Parker, is tempted to break free from her restrictive upbringing when her world religions class offers her a different path from the one that’s been set for her. In her beautifully crafted debut novel, Huss writes about Emma’s awakening with compassion, humor and insight. River Road is a spiritual coming of age story that is both timely and timeless.”
— Barbara Deese, author of Murder at Spirit Falls, Spirited Away and Forgotten Spirits.
“River Road is the story of Emma, a student at the University of Minnesota, as she begins her journey into adulthood. Emma’s life was supposed to take a clear path – earn her college degree and have her marry the hometown boy she’d known for most of her life, but other realities intrude on Emma’s idealized future. When she falls in love with a young man of another religious faith and begins to understand how her parent’s rigid spiritual beliefs brought destruction to her brother’s life, Emma struggles to break free of the intolerance of her parent’s world. This is a story told with extraordinary compassion and heartfelt authenticity. It is a story readers will remember for a long, long time.”
— Walter Roers, author of The Pact, Pathos Rising and Tyger, Tyger.
By Karen Huss
We sit in the pew, my parents on one side of me, Noah and I next to the ceiling-high windows that line the outer wall. Shadows from the big oak trees dance across our clasped hands. The whole church vibrates with the sound of the organ, as the congregation responds, “Lord have mer-er-er-cy.” I squeeze Noah’s hand. He gives me a slight smile and squeezes back. Pastor Jon starts his sermon. I shut my eyes, the warm sun on my face, as his familiar, baritone voice rumbles in my ears. Even the wooden pew feels cool, soothing, like a place I belong.
After church Pastor Jon’s face lights up in a warm smile as he first shakes Noah’s hand, then mine. People touch our sleeves, saying, “We’re so glad to have you back.” If only Logan were here too. He’s probably embarrassed by everything that’s happened, but I miss him, and so do our parents.
Noah and I stand outside on the grass in the sun with both sets of parents as Noah’s squirrelly little brother crawls over and under the side rails along the disabled ramp down to the parking lot. Damp yellow and brown leaves stick to our shoes in grass that probably could use a cutting. My dad gives Noah’s hand a vigorous shake. “Noah, haven’t had a chance to say hello to you yet. How’s our Emma treating you? She’s behaving herself in the big city I hope.” My dad’s got a sparkle in his eye, his mustache tipped in a mischievous smile. You can tell he knows he’s got nothing to worry about, and I’m glad.
My mom tucks her petite body into my dad’s side and smiles up at him, “Of course she is, Dan. Emma’s a good girl.” My mom wears a fluid, patterned dress with a swingy skirt and heels. Except for her smooth page boy mom-do she looks almost young enough to be my older sister. She’s a sharp contrast to Noah’s mom standing next to her in wide mom jeans, tennis shoes and a shapeless mint green sweater. When I’m their age I hope I look like my mom, not Noah’s, that’s all I can say.
The Ericksons stop by. Mr. Erickson punches Noah’s arm saying, “You’re not going to end up a Vikings fan now that you go to the U of M, are you, Noah?”
Noah laughs, says, “I really like it, but I’ll always be a Cheesehead at heart.”
“We’re holding you to that now,” says Mr. Erickson.
Noah’s brother, Jake, stops his climbing around in the railings to blurt out, “Nuh uh. He hates school. You said you hate it. Remember? You’re flunking…”
My head swings around to Noah.
“Jake! I did not say that. I said, it was harder than I expected and I’m going to have to hit the books. I never said I hated it.”
“That’s what you said to Mom.”
I see the look Noah is giving Jake. If looks could kill. The same look I’m giving Noah.
Flunking? What the hell? This is news to me. What class? Noah told me he got a “C” on our econ test, so it can’t be that, right? I stand there with my fake smile, my arms crossed below my thumping heart, as Mrs. Erickson prattles on about the upcoming church luncheon and the stupid new salad recipe she’s going to try.
That afternoon Noah picks me up for our three hour trip back to the U. We’re off to a rocky start soon after I shut my door, buckle my seatbelt and say, “You’re a freaking liar, Noah.”
At first Noah sputters, “Nice! Thanks. Why do you always have to talk like that?” Then he claims he didn’t lie, he just hadn’t told me yet. He also throws in that I struggled freshman year too, but eventually the truth comes out: not only did he get a “D” on a test in accounting; he also failed the econ test.
“You failed?” My voice comes out high and thin like a squeaky faucet turning on. Then more stuff pours out, like, “That test was easy. If you don’t try, you’re going to ruin everything!” Because he will, if he’s not careful. Like maybe even our whole future together.
A car in the left lane zooms by Noah’s window so fast it’s like we’re not moving. Noah doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even turn his head. He stares straight ahead, his neck and cheek flushed, the way they get when he’s upset or embarrassed.
I remind him that three weeks before he said he was almost positive he wanted to major in business, but before I can finish Noah interrupts with a bunch of stuff about how I think I have all the answers, and everything figured out, and how he’s not like me and blah, blah, blah, which is weird, because Noah’s not even the argumentative type.
“What?” Cold air hisses out the air conditioning vents onto my bare arms. Blood throbs in my temples as I say, “Excuse me, my bad. When you said you wanted to go to the U., graduate, and maybe even marry me someday I thought you meant it. But I guess I should have known you were just saying that to make me happy and later you’d flunk out, so I’d know you weren’t serious!”
Noah’s jaw ripples, but his voice is steady, “I’m not going to flunk out. So I failed a test, and school is tougher than I thought. I admit I’ve tuned out with some video games, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change. I’ll join a study group or something. Don’t freak, okay? It doesn’t help when you freak.”
I stare at him as he drives. His face is like a stone, eyes fixed ahead, the pink blotches on his skin the only give away to his emotions. I love his short spiky strawberry blonde hair. His pale, kind eyes. He is a good guy, I know that. It’s a couple of tests, Emma. Don’t blow a gasket. I sigh, look out the front window at the blue sky, and the dark fields with a golden stubble of leftover cornstalks. I have put my trust in God and know that it’ll be okay. That’s where I struggle, and where Noah’s a natural. We are opposites in a million ways, but that’s what makes us so perfect.
Noah, true to his word, joins study groups in both micro economics and accounting. We settle back into our usual routine with a few simple tweaks. He still stops over after class on Wednesdays and Thursdays but instead of watching T.V. after dinner, we sit quietly in my room studying until 9, when we’re allowed to watch one show. Then he leaves by 10:30 or sometimes 11 since he doesn’t have an 8:00 class, and I don’t need as much sleep.
In spite of good behavior, in another couple weeks we’ve both caught colds. I fix us soup at my apartment which we eat in my room in my full-sized bed. I even let Noah sleep over in bed with me so he doesn’t have to walk home on a cold night. I figure we’re too sick for anything to happen anyway, and besides both of us feel the same way about honoring God by waiting, not just me.
I wake up in the morning to the gentle rumble of Noah snoring. His mouth is open slightly, his cheeks flushed and his nose red below. He looks kind of awful, vulnerable and sweet, all at the same time. I want to kiss him, but then I imagine what my parents would think, if they could see me at this moment, so I get up instead.
I walk out of my bedroom to find my roommate, Olive, home. She’s in nursing, works at St. Mary’s hospital in the evenings as a nursing assistant, plus she’s got a boyfriend she stays with a lot, so she’s almost never around. But this time there she is, eating cereal in our little, white kitchen. My face starts to burn the second I see her. Of course Noah picks that moment to get up to use the bathroom. My stupid half-busted door knob falls off my bedroom door, clunks on the floor as he comes out, and Noah shouts down the hallway, “Your door knob fell off again,” just in case she wasn’t totally positive I had a guy in my room overnight.
I say, “We’re both sick, so I let Noah stay over rather than making him go home late. Nothing happened, and this is the first time I’ve let him stay…”
Olive waves her hand at me. “I’m never here anyway. It’s fine with me if he wants to. You have your own room.”
“Well, I’m just saying…”
“I was up until 2, have a test at 9, so believe me when I say, I don’t care.” Olive’s shiny straight brown hair, cut in a bob and sort of cartoon-like round nose, does remind a person of Olive Oyl from Popeye. She’s not super attractive, or even very nice, at least to me. I suspect she already thinks I’m a prude, but I can’t let her think I’m someone who talks big about abstinence, then sneaks around having sex behind closed doors. I really DO walk the walk.