You Can Take It to the Bank

gift from former boss inspires locally themed historic tale

Barbara Arnold, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Author Rebecca Oatman read from On the Banks of the River at The Volume One Gallery on March 19.
Author Rebecca Oatman read from On the Banks of the River at
The Volume One Gallery on March 19.

The gift of two books from an admired boss took Rebecca Oatman on a two-year journey to research and write her latest book that weaves history and fiction into a novel about six generations of a family in the Chippewa Valley.

The books were Sawdust City and The River Flows On by Lois Barland, a late Eau Claire author well known for her historical research about Eau Claire and its residents.

The boss who gave them to Rebecca was Bill Boyken, then retired president of Community State Bank (which became M&I Bank and is now BMO Harris Bank) on Water Street. After retiring to Iowa, Bill often returned to his beloved Eau Claire with his wife, Muriel, and enjoyed taking his former employees to dinner. On one of these occasions, he gave Rebecca the two Eau Claire history books saying, “I think you could write a story based on these.”

Her book is called On the Banks of the River. Its cover photo shows a scene of a bank on the  Chippewa River, with the water flowing, just as the book’s pages trace the movement of a family through time. The first chapter begins with Wilhelm in 1865 and sets the stage for a divide in relationships that his heirs are left to contend with for generations. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a fictional character in his or her own voice. After Wilhelm, his brother Axel recalls his lumberjack days in 1874, then on to Wilhelm’s wife Mary in 1883, and other descendants through the years, roughly one per decade, to just before the 9/11 tragedy in 2001.

“The story had to stop sometime, “ said Rebecca. “History keeps going, but the plot had been wrapped up and to continue meant involving more international and national events than specifically Eau Claire’s. I already had so many wars and tragedies covered that I just couldn’t cover the aftermath.”

All that history, primarily Eau Claire’s, took a lot of digging.

“I spent over a year doing the research,” she noted, “and it was grueling. I finally had to stop and just start writing, and then I would look up facts as I needed them.”

Every historical fact in this book was checked, rechecked, and then checked again, using multiple sources to verify the same event. Rebecca also researched how people wrote in each period, including sentence structure and word choice, not to mention, people’s names, to ensure historical accuracy.

“I’m most interested in the human nature aspect of history,” she shared. “In fact, I’m fascinated with it, and how a person’s choice at one time can impact his or her life and that of generations into the future, of someone not even born yet, how the person making the decision will never know the result of that one defining moment in his or her life.”

The character who makes a choice in his life takes us back to Wilhelm. You’ll have to read the book to find out more, and while few could read this book in one night due to its length of almost 300 pages and the intriguing and winding plot, suffice to say his choice involves a child, a prostitute, and a murder. Yes, in Eau Claire.

On the Banks of the River is available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and in Kindle format on Amazon.com.