In The Sweetness of Water new author Nathan Harris spins an incredibly complex tale of the post-Civil War South, and tells it in a humane and intimate way, by exploring the interpersonal relationships of all kinds in and around the rural Georgia town of Old Ox.
The story primarily revolves around Prentiss and Landry, two formerly enslaved black brothers, the white farmer George Walker who hires them, and his wife Isabella. It opens with landowner George walking his fields and stumbling across Prentiss and his silent brother Landry who were camping in the woods. They had left the close-by Morton plantation after the announcement of the Emancipation – freeing of the slaves. They know that they’d rather be anywhere than back at the plantation, where the owner is in complete denial about Emancipation and still considers the brothers his rightful property.
Slightly disoriented and in some pain, George asks for their help getting back to his cabin and wife, and offers the brothers food and shelter in his barn. Later, George asks the brothers for help in restoring his farmland with a peanut crop. In return, he offers to pay them an honest wage. At first, Prentiss refuses. After having a brief taste of freedom, he’d rather not start toiling again for a white man. But after a bit of back and forth, each begin to realize that they can be useful to each other. The brothers agree to work to earn enough money to travel north to search for their mother who was sold when they were boys.
The Walkers, wracked by the apparent loss of their only son Caleb to the war, eventually discover that Caleb had deserted the Confederate Army and survived. He returns home, and although he is at first wary of the brothers, he soon begins to form a friendly rapport with them. Caleb is hoping to rebuild a relationship with his childhood friend August Webler, who served with Caleb and knows of his desertion. Before the war, the two had a secret romantic/sexual relationship.
One day, Landry accidentally observes Caleb and August having sex in the woods. August sees Landry and kills him to keep the relationship secret. George and Prentiss find Landry’s body and call the local sheriff to investigate. The sheriff first refuses to investigate the death of a black man. When Caleb tells the sheriff that the killer was August, the son of Old Ox’s wealthiest resident Wade Webler, he becomes even more firm in his refusal, as he is obedient to the wealth and power of the Webler family.
Later, Wade arrives at the Walkers’ home and demands an apology for the allegations against August. Prentiss observes the scene and in a fury spits on Wade. Then the sheriff arrests Prentiss. In the night, Caleb goes to the prison with a gun and frees Prentiss. George then accompanies Prentiss and Caleb northward through the woods, helping them flee Old Ox. Afterwards, the sheriff shoots George in the leg.
Emancipation or not, the agreement between George and the brothers represents a breach of centuries-old social arrangements in the community. And so, even though the Walkers’ 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.
Meanwhile, the Walkers become pariahs in Old Ox. Some townspeople set fire to the Walkers’ farm. The fire spreads and badly damages the whole town. George is brought back to town and dies a few days later. All this unleashed convulsive repercussions on the entire community. However, in the aftermath of the turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and the newly freed blacks in Old Ox. She decides to divide up her farmland and rent it out at fair prices to people in need of such opportunities, regardless of race. Isabelle eventually receives a letter from Caleb, stating that he and Prentiss made it safely to the north.
In conclusion, Harris’s characters are multi-faceted, absorbing and extraordinarily well-developed. They transport the reader into a difficult time of complex social problems, with situations that elevate with each turn of the page. The Sweetness of Water is a story in which black and white people find salvation together, bonding in the face of egregious extreme racism of others.
I would say that those characters of George, Landry, Prentiss, Caleb and particularly of Isabelle are meticulously drawn. The portrayals of Isabelle and George’s lengthy marriage and of Isabelle’s platonic relationship with Mildred are exceedingly well done. I was incredibly impressed with the way it probes themes of historical importance about race, sexuality, violence and grief – through carefully drawn characters and examination of their relationships. Ultimately, this is a book about how differences need to be set aside and replaced with empathy if our nation is to be healed of racial divides – something that is true for America now.
— Kenn Johnson