Photo: MrHarman, Wikimedia Commons
From the age of six until the time I went away to college, I lived about three blocks away from Cobb Park in Kankakee, Illinois—significant to me because Cobb Park is bordered by the curve of the Kankakee River. Children had more freedom in the 1960s than they do now, and from the time I was nine or ten, I was allowed to walk or ride my bike to the park on my own during summer vacation. Sometimes my little brother came with me. I remember spending unsupervised time on the bank of that river, which I came to love with an abiding affection that has never left me. My brother and I knew we should never wade in it, although we did creep close to the water or walk out onto the square concrete block that was all that remained of a long-vanished boat house. The photo above shows a view similar to the one that greeted me on those idyllic summer days.
The origin of the word Kankakee (pronounced KANG•kuh•kee) is Native American, although records differ as to the people who originated the name and its possible meaning. According to an early fur trader (1822), the original Pottawatomi name was Ti-yar-ack-naunk and meant “wonderful river.” However, a priest who visited the region in 1721 recorded the original name as The-a-ki-ki, which meant “wolf.” (Houde, M. J., & Klasey, J. Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County, pp. 2-3.)
Whatever its exact origin, I appropriated an approximation of the native name for the river in my novel Katie, Bar the Door, which is coming out on September 22, 2021. (It can be preordered here.) I dubbed my river the Theakia (pronounced Tay•AH•kee•uh) and didn’t bother to assign an original meaning.
My main character Katie lives in a small community consisting of about a dozen houses and a general store out in the countryside of fictional Bishop County, very loosely based on Kankakee County. The river doesn’t run past her home, but it is close enough that she can pass it when she goes out running, and like me, she loves it with a deep, instinctive love. Here is a description from her point of view:
Up ahead, a flock of starlings wheeled in a huge cloud against the white sky and then settled in a field. I lifted my braid from my neck. Sweat poured down my face, and I tasted salt on my lips. Already I was beginning to sense the almost mystical sense of rhythm that possessed me when I ran. Sometimes, I imagined my veins sucking up strength from this ancient prairie where I’d been born. I loved it here, even though the land was flat as a table.
Turning the corner, I passed a white farmhouse whose yard displayed a silver milk can surrounded by orange marigolds. Half a mile farther, I turned onto Eagle Island Road. On my left, a tangle of wild shrubbery followed the line of the Theakia River. In places, openings broke through the green wall. After running another mile, I halted by one of those clearings.
From here, I could see Eagle Island, a long sandy oval overrun with thin trees and dense undergrowth. On mornings when mist from the river curled up around the island, the view made my heart ache.
Often, people sat fishing here when I ran past. The spot where I stood was empty that day, but down near the water’s edge stood a table made from a large wooden spool and two rusty metal chairs with scalloped backs.
A breeze moved across my sweaty skin, and I pulled at the tank top plastered to my chest and then turned back.
Kankakee River: ©Shutterstock/Tolk83