Thursday, December 11, 2003

Author makes a mystery from her life on the river

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Dorothy Weil, author of the just published novel, River Rats, in her Clifton home.
(Gary Landers photo)
A towboat on the Ohio River might seem an odd place for an author to place a mystery-romance novel, but not if that author is Dorothy Weil.

The river is the thoroughfare that runs through the 73-year-old Clifton woman's life, from her childhood as the daughter of a river man, living for a time on the steamboat Valley Queen, to her life's work as a painter, filmmaker, and author.

"My head seems to be always thinking about the river," Weil said last week, sipping tea in the Clifton home where she and her husband, lawyer Sidney Weil, raised two sons. "My heart is certainly there."

River Rats is her fifth book - her first of the mystery genre. It is set in the mid-1980s, in the world of Ohio River towboats, with main characters drawn from her own experience, and that of her family.

There's Jerry Burnside, the harbor owner with a touch of the poet in his soul. Charlie Summers, a wealthy river man. And Kay Kenny, the owner of a barge line and the woman whose love Jerry and Charlie competed for as young men.

Dorothy Weil will sign copies of her book River Rats from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at New World Book Shop, 336 Ludlow Ave., Clifton. The book can be ordered at online or by sending $19.95 to Publish America, P.O. Box 151, Frederick, MD 21705-0151. It is also available at
It is the story of a love triangle, laid over a mystery - the strange sniper attacks on riverboat men from a shooter or shooters on shore and the long-ago sinking of the River Queen, an old steamboat from their past.

Weil worked on the book for nearly 16 years, in fits and starts.

"It was truly a labor of love,'' she says. "But I picked it up and put it down many times over the years, until I finally felt I got the story right."

In May, she spent two weeks of "total peace and quiet" in the rural setting of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where she, at last, finished River Rats.

"Her eye for detail is precise and telling; she lets us see the places and people she writes about," Cincinnatian Jane Durrell writes in FiftyPlus! of Weil's prose. "All of us who live near a river sometimes envy those who live on it, and even though the actuality may be cramped and sometimes uncomfortable, we want to know what it's like.''

One of the reasons it took so long to write was the fact that Weil has worked almost nonstop in recent years on other projects. With Jane Goetzman, her partner in TV Image Inc., she has co-produced seven documentary films, four of them with a river theme.

Last year, she published a book of memoirs, The River Home, and presented her first solo exhibition of paintings at the YWCA Art Gallery in downtown Cincinnati.

The River Home was the story of her own life, as the daughter of Harv Coomer, a "wild river man from the hills of Kentucky'' and Mildred Beamer, the cultured offspring of a proper Cincinnati German family.

On the face of it, her parents were mismatched, but it was the Ohio River that brought them together in the 1920s - they met while Harv was working as mate on board the Island Queen, on one of its regular runs from the Public Landing to Coney Island.

After her father died in 1980, Weil embarked on a journey to reconnect with her river roots, spending months traveling the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers by steamboats, towboats and flatboats.

"I met many river people who didn't fit the stereotype," says Weil. "There was one fellow who did origami. Guys would press poems they had written into my hands. Some of them spend their free time writing country-and-western ballads. There are many interesting people on the river."

She used her travels in the 1980s in writing her memoirs and in the writing of River Rats as well.

"While I was writing River Rats, I was creating the characters on river people I have known over the years," Weil says. "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional."


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