Oprah Picked It, So Did Obama — Why This Novel Is THE Summer Book
Evocative and accessible, Nathan Harris's debut novel The Sweetness of Water is a historical page-turner about social friction so powerful it ignites a whole town.
Old Ox, Georgia, is a community attempting to right itself after tectonic upheaval. Focusing on the period just after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the enforcement of emancipation in the South through the presence of Union troops, Harris asks a question Americans have yet to figure out: How does a community make peace in the wake of civil war? I'm not sure the novel comes close to finding an answer. But posing the question and following through the work undertaken felt incredibly worthwhile nonetheless.
Between Oprah's Book Club, President Obama's summer reading list and the Booker Prize long list, The Sweetness of Water is having a moment that goes beyond topicality. There are several reasons for that: First, its question feels urgent and familiar, because politics now feels like war. Between the January insurrection, the threat of Texas secession, and the daily rhetoric of combat and revolution, the battles are ongoing, not just along party but also regional lines. Second, the peacemaking project attempted on these pages is still clearly unfinished. Like a fictional companion to Clint's Smith's history How the Word is Passed, The Sweetness of Water joins the national conversation on race and reckoning with history already in progress. In struggles over flags, monuments, textbooks, and university tenure, we're still fighting over how to frame this event in public memory, so those old wounds feel particularly fresh. Nathan Harris makes those extraordinary, still contested times comprehensible through an immersive, incredibly humane storytelling about the lives of ordinary people.
'The Sweetness of Water' is having a moment that goes beyond topicality. There are several reasons for that.
And third, right now, we desperately need to believe in our better angels, that we too can come together and rise above, like Harris's protagonists (and as President Obama famously urged). That hope is the driving force in The Sweetness of Water. It takes flight when three men meet by chance in the woods — two Black, one white. George Walker, an aging white landowner, has spent too long out there hunting an elusive prey when he comes across Landry and Prentiss, two young Black freedmen who've been secretly living in the forest on George's property because they have nowhere else to go, and lack the resources to move on. They only know they'd rather be anywhere than back at their old plantation, where the owner is in complete denial about Emancipation and still considers both men his rightful property.
An unlikely connection takes root
Despite mutual trepidation, the three decide to treat each other with care. Slightly disoriented and in pain, George asks for help getting back to his cabin and his wife, and he offers the two brothers food and shelter in the barn. It doesn't sound like much — but in that context, cooperation is an act of kindness and trust. Plus, there's more to Geoge's wandering that day; he'd just gotten the (erroneous) news that his son, Caleb, a Confederate soldier, was killed in action and dreaded sharing that with his wife.
Harris spins an increasingly complex tale about the postwar South, and he tells it in a humane and intimate way, by exploring the interpersonal relationships of all kinds in and around this rural Georgia town.
In the days that follow, a connection takes root. Bereft himself, George doesn't know how to help his grieving wife, but he needs to do something. So though he's always avoided industry, with Landry and Prentiss's help, he decides to start farming his land. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement, a requirement on both sides: Landry and Prentiss won't accept a new master-slave type arrangement of the kind that's proliferating in the area, and that's fine, because George has no desire to be a master. He's always lived apart from Old Ox, in geography and attitudes. To his mind, this is no different. So he'll pay them a fair wage, the same as any other (white) workers. The brothers agree to work until they can save money to move north, and George gets help getting his new venture off the ground.
Emancipation or not, this agreement represents a breach of centuries-old social arrangements. And so even though their business doesn't directly affect any other person in Old Ox, every white person in proximity has an opinion on it, as though Landry and Prentiss's mere existence is yet another affront and attack on their lives. From there, Harris spins an increasingly complex tale about the postwar South, and he tells it in a humane and intimate way, by exploring the interpersonal relationships of all kinds in and around this rural Georgia town.
In small moments, Harris convincingly captures the thoughts and actions of ordinary people trying to push through extraordinary times.
They're all connected and interdependent; a fracture or ripple in one inevitably affects the others. The Walkers treating Landry and Prentiss with respect causes not just a ripple in those relationships — more like a revolt. The petty viciousness of the reactions to the Walkers' arrangement with Landry and Prentiss can be maddening, and yet it rings true: American history is littered with events that began with a breach of racial etiquette. In small moments, Harris convincingly captures the thoughts and actions of ordinary people trying to push through extraordinary times. And even though the story focuses on hope and unexpected kinship, it doesn't diminish the horrors of slavery or the struggle in its wake. The events of their former lives are never far from memory — whipping, beating, disfiguring physical abuse, family separation, near starvation, dehumanization. None of that is denied. None of it is minimized. Like the brothers, Harris tries to train the focus elsewhere for a time.
Water taps into a profound American thirst
As an act of pure storytelling, it soars. On a deeper level, however, some aspects of the novel feel unsettled and incomplete. The Sweetness of Water taps into America's longstanding and profound thirst for fantasies of racial reconciliation — stories in which Black people and white people find salvation together, bonding in the face of the egregious extreme racism of others. As appealing as they are, these narratives tend to reproduce certain problematic patterns. First, while seeming to focus on crucial issues, these narratives actually highlight individual exceptions to systemic problems that need real examination. Second, even in stories where Black people should naturally be the focus (as in The Help and Green Book) they tend to marginalize Black characters in order to center and affirm the virtue of good whites. And third, they can provide easy absolution without deeper reflection (again see The Help, Green Book).
I felt those tensions keenly reading this novel, but while it flirts with the edge, it doesn't quite fall into the abyss. The difference is that The Sweetness of Water isn't a story about what happened to the enslaved after slavery's end, coopted to focus on a white family. It's a soapy and riveting drama-filled exploration of a fracture and a healing. The focus on an interracial cast is an necessity, feature rather than a flaw.
I only wish the ensemble was a little more interested in the fullness of its Black characters; I yearned to spend more than snippets of time with Landry, Prentiss, and George's confidante Clementine. It's easy to love George and Isabelle — and Caleb, eventually — but I don't think they're inherently more worthy of our focus and nuance, or even more essential to the redemption story being told. The novel seems to follow the logic that it's the white inhabitants of Old Ox whose adjustments to life post war are most worthy of our attention. But if Landry and Prentiss are worthy of driving the action, if they are worthy of risk and saving, then they are worthy of depth. They're beautiful characters I wish I'd gotten to know better.
The story is captivating — but the omissions are hard to ignore
They're not the only ones neglected. The Sweetness of Water is highly selective about where it casts its lens. It's a story at once set in history, yet removed from it. In the emphasis on the Walkers and what they do for Landry and Prentiss, there's also a glaring omission of the realities of post war life elsewhere in Old Ox. Though Harris is generous to these select few white Southerners, he shuts out facts that are essential to understanding the world they inhabit, even if at a remove.
Harris captures white anger and resentment at loss of white livelihood, lifestyle and status. The novel briefly references the rough reentry to society of white men who returned from a lost war lacking jobs and money and the restoration of pride. But in this period the losses were not merely symbolic or even material. There was also tremendous loss of life in the Civil War, one in five young men, according to some estimates. But there's an eerie silence about those who didn't return — the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the war and how their absence shaped the lives of those they left behind. Where were those widows and fathers and mothers and friends? As much as I was captivated by Harris's storytelling while I was in the thick of everything, in the end, I felt his omissions and oversights just as acutely.
The Sweetness of Water left a lasting and multifaceted impression: It's warm and absorbing, thought provoking and humane. But ultimately uneven in its ideas — a book whose resonance ever so slightly exceeds its art.
A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.