Jeanne M. Leiby was an editor beyond editors. The first woman to head The Southern Review, she had enough heart and toughness to take on that task. When I first began submitting stories to literary reviews, I knew that, for The Southern Review, I'd have to wait for just the right story, one secure in setting, with characters balanced between rocks and hard places, with language surprising and new. And eventually I did send a story, which came back to me, and which some day I’ll return to and send again, once it’s earned the chance. Sadly, very sadly, Jeanne Leiby won’t be there to read it. Still, I look to her for guidance, and though she is gone, I find just that in her words—the words and lines and passages of her stories.
The stories in her collection, Downriver, are reflective, ribboning prisms of light, mirrored in the dusty windows of houses in Riverview and Wyandotte, under the smokestacks of the BASF plant. Downriver Detroit is the landscape by which her characters find a way, where they wrestle with each other—from the father who thinks he has broken his daughter to the boy who loses an arm, from the woman who craves human contact which is rough and raw to the eight-year-old girl who wants to slip inside the fearlessness of a mistrusted teenager. Place is not kind here: it is rocky, hard, and angled with decisions that hurt. Out of the harshness of place, however, arises a caring, beholden handling of characters. Just there is a man who treasures his children, but has no idea how to approach them. And there, on another side of town, is a girl too young to know lust, but recognizes in herself the same kind of hunger for risk and danger that older, unloved girls invite. Even their names unveil the possibility and the peril inherent in this place—names like Anna and Ingo, Joseph, Al Rosa, Benny and Trini, Nyla and Petie. These characters are so real that it seems as though we know them, we understand them, until we are them, the taste of the river in our mouths.
The language here twists in evocative, unusual ways, the kind that trace ideas and images back to their origins, that cut though chain link and back yards and lead straight into bedrooms where things are whispered and overheard. There are moments that pull the narrative down and then send it spiraling out, in directions unexpected and upended. These moments arrive without protection, asking to be further exposed, like in Joseph’s wish for a pattern in the bathroom tile work, “something cryptic and Egyptian… something to say, ‘Come rescue us because we are all certainly dying.’”  And farther out, at 3 a.m. from her fourth-floor balcony, Anna measures her desire for punishment in the river’s length and breadth, recalling her father’s “primary rule of the river… Red, right, returning. Remember that. And you’ll never get lost,” [2} and in this way realizes that leaving has always brought her back. And then in the twilight of a side yard, young Petie wants to bathe in the wicked light that Trini throws, wants “to squeeze out all that danger, see it… in a puddle, run through it in [her] father’s work boots, and dance footprints all over the white living-room rug.”  Bare, unburdened language holds these characters and allows them a way to open themselves, which in turn opens up the stories.
Downriver is a gift from which to remember Jeanne. Though she can’t give us more words, what she has given is immeasurable. There is grit and rocky ground and disquiet in her writing that reveals so much about the writer, so much about her imagined world, its shadow far greater than even those of the BASF smokestacks. Her stories and characters keep her memory alive, and grant us a place to return, a place to come “back, and back, and back.” 
 “A Place Alone,” 17.
 “Vinegar Tasting,” 30.
 “Nike Site,” 40.
 “Nike Site,” 40.