Girl in the River — A Novel

A Woman Caught in the Whipsaw of History

OpeningQuote_GirlInTheRiver_v3cIt’s the middle of the twentieth century and Portland has fallen into the hands of gangsters. Newly orphaned Mae Rose wanders the rain-stained streets alone, on the lam from a knife wielding pimp, mustering her own worst impulses to survive. As Mae rises in Portland’s gritty sex industry, she’s pursued by a district attorney who wants to ensnare her for more personal reasons.  Meanwhile, Dr. Ruth Barnett, queen of Portland’s nightlife, runs a lucrative abortion service and it is she who eventually provides the refuge that Mae seeks. After the war, both women are caught in the cross hairs of anti-vice crusader Dottie “Do-good” Lee. Their survival will depend on their ability to outsmart the cops and politicians who no longer protect them.

Girl in the River is a portrait of the intimate lives of women during one of the most corrupt periods in Portland history. It’s an unflinching look at the power dynamics of sex. A glimpse into the work life of a call girl. An improbable love story. The tale of post-war assaults on reproductive rights. And a tribute to two remarkable and remarkably different women who shaped the lives of Portlanders during those tumultuous times: Dr. Ruth Barnett and Mayor Dorothy Lee.

Read more about the people of the story here.


What others are saying


An extraordinary page-turner of a novel, featuring crooked cops, sensation-minded reporters, moralistic politicians, and always-vulnerable women who turn out smarter and craftier than all the rest. A fabulous read! —Rickie Solinger, author of The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law

A smart, noirish, full-blooded novel with vivid characters and gut-hitting dialogue. Think “LA Confidential,” but even more firmly grounded in the reality of time and place. A smooth and terrifically enjoyable read, and highly recommended!  – Rich Rubin, Portland Playwright

Visitors lured to Portland today by the images from Portlandia will be surprised to learn what the city was once known for was of a far seamier nature—a world of nominally forbidden sex, drugs and gambling operations so openly protected by the politicians, police, prosecutors and businessmen who were its beneficiaries that they might have been agencies of government. Swept out from under the rug of history in Kullberg’s revealing Girl in the River are an array of important figures on both sides of the trades. Your guide to this illicit world and its demise in the changed atmosphere of the 1950s is an astute but vulnerable fictional call girl, Maebelline Rose, whose inability to deceive either herself or others makes her a perfect companion.   Enticing both as history and story, Girl in the River is also a timely reminder of how much remains at stake as the battle over women’s bodies continues. —Elinor Langer, author of Josephine Herbst and A Hundred Little Hitlers

Girl in the River starts with a bang and hums right along—like one of those hardboiled film noir movies. Smart and raw, full of sassy dialog, the novel touches on issues of morality and justice, propriety and decency. The 1930s and 40s may have been a simpler time, but the corrosive impact of the corruption this novel explores is all too familiar. — Maryka Biaggio, author of Parlor Games, a novel

Girl in the River brings history to life in a riveting story with a feisty working-class heroine whose feelings, attitudes, and choices accurately reflect the times within which she lived as well as her individual biography.   Kullberg’s marvelous evocation of time and place captures the constrained range of possibilities which shaped the lives of women from the 30’s through the 50’s and allows us to appreciate what feminist struggle since then has (and has not yet) achieved.—Johanna Brenner, author of Women and the Politics of Class

From the popular culture and atmosphere surrounding World War II to the work of a beloved abortion doctor (true-life character Ruth Barnett, who is known for not just abortion work, but grand parties), Girl in the River doesn’t just capture the politics, culture, and sentiments of its times; it presents them in living color. A captivating historical story powered by feisty, believable protagonists, a smoky noir atmosphere, and a story based on real-life events. —Midwest Book Review

Girl in the River is an engaging historical novel set in Portland in the 1930s and 1940s, which illustrates the danger for a young woman in the “wide open” town where gambling, prostitution and drug addiction were common. Kullberg does an excellent job of developing believable characters, both historical and fictional. The book includes a brilliant portrait of Dr. Ruth Barnett, the city’s most famous abortionist and a most colorful character. The protagonist, Mae Rose, is well drawn and we come to care about her and root for her as the story develops. Girl in the River is a very good read that makes Portland in the 30s and 40s come alive.
JD Chandler, co-author of Portland on the Take

…the nuanced characterizations and social message serve each other, reaffirming the idea that the personal is indeed political. —Kirkus Reviews

If only history classes were this rich and enjoyable. Kullberg has crafted a wonderful look into Portland’s history, and how women in particular may have navigated the tricky business of building a life against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century legal systems, power-plays, poverty and health care. —Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl and Stud Book.



Release date: August 20, 2015 by Bygone Era Books.