The Sweetness of Water, by Nathan Harris

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

The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett, by Annie Lyons

This book is utterly charming! I don’t know how the author manages to make a crusty, unfriendly old woman and a force-of-nature 10-year-old into such appealing people! They could so easily have come across as unlikeable or bratty… but they don’t.

Eudora is an 85-year-old English woman who is done with life. She has no relations and wants, very badly, to end her life on her own terms. She seeks out a clinic in Switzerland that has a program of assisted suicide to which she can apply. Meanwhile, her next door neighbor has moved out and sold the house to a young family. Ten-year-old Rose enters Eudora’s life and manages not only to be a friend to Eudora, but to think of Eudora as her own best friend.

The book is, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, simply charming. We see Rose and Eudora developing this most unlikely friendship in spite of Rose’s flamboyance which contradicts all of Eudora’s deeply held beliefs about proper attire and behavior. And in spite of Eudora’s persnickety reprovals of Rose’s ways. There are laugh-out-loud passages and others that just make you smile. 

If you’ve ever owned a cat, you might particularly enjoy Montgomery, Eudora’s cat.  When we first meet Montgomery, he is barely tolerant of Eudora, although she is the one who feeds and cares for him. This passage tells you all you need to know about their relationship at the beginning of the book:

“The cat plants himself with defiance across the top step. ’If you trip me up, there’ll be no one to feed you,’ she tells him. He stares up at her with momentary distaste, but seems to take the point, slinking down the stairs with practiced arrogance.”

But there is so much more to this book. In a series of short flashbacks woven throughout the basic story, we begin to understand why Eudora is the way she is, why she has no family, why some of Rose’s antics rub her decidedly the wrong way, why she’s so determined to end her life before her body deteriorates further. 

Ultimately, this is a book about death and about what makes a good death. And it’s about true friendship that transcends differences of age, of point-of-view, of time and place. It’s a great read!

–Jeanie Smith

Out of the Easy, by Ruta Sepetys

“My mother’s a prostitute.” Well, there’s an opening line for you! So begins 17-year-old Josie’s story set in 1950 New Orleans. This is a page-turner, a story of the southern gentility that covers over the decadent underbelly of “The Big Easy.” And a young girl’s desire to get out. There’s a murder mystery, dreams and dashed hopes, survival in tough circumstances. But this book is also about love and about family.

Josie’s family isn’t like yours or mine. Her father is unknown to her, but she fantasizes about who he might be. Her mother is well known to her, but is incapable of nurturing her, capable of great cruelty and actually betrays her time after time.  Her family is Willie, the madam of the brothel where her mother works; Cokie, the driver of Willie’s car and a devoted believer in Josie; Charlie, an author and bookstore owner who has suffered an assault that has left him diminished and in need of care; Patrick, Charlie’s son, who runs the bookstore where Josie works.  There are others, too, who surround this smart, worldly-wise teenager and keep watch over her, frequently without her knowledge.

The story centers on Josie’s chance meeting with Charlotte, in New Orleans to visit her cousin. Charlotte is a freshman at Smith College.  She and Josie form an immediate bond that leads to Josie’s determination to go to Smith and get “out of the Easy.” She’s smart enough, sure; she’s got the grades. But her “extra-curriculars” are not exactly what are featured on most college applications. She cleans at the brothel in the mornings and works at the bookstore, where her “family” has created an apartment for her where she has lived alone since she was eleven.

Josie’s relationship with Willie is charming, if not your normal “mother”-daughter one. Take this exchange, for instance. This is the morning routine, after Josie has cleaned up after the previous night. She takes Willie her morning coffee, made just so, along with a report:

“So what do you have,” she asked.

I picked up the pail. “Well, first, this huge thing.”  I pulled an enormous red shoe out of the bucket.

Willie nodded. “From Kansas City.  He paid two bills to dress up in stockings and dance with the girls.”

“And he left a shoe?” I asked.

“No the other one’s under the settee in the parlor.  I keep them up in the attic for guys like him.  Wipe them off and put them back up there.  What else?”

I pulled a twenty dollar bill out of the pail. “In Dora’s toilet tank.”

Willie rolled her eyes.

I produced a silver cigarette lighter from the pail.  “On Sweety’s bedside table.”

“Well done.  It belongs to an Uptown attorney.  What a horse’s ass.  Thinks he’s so smart.  Doesn’t know the difference between piss and perfume.  I’ll have fun returning that to him.  Maybe I’ll drop by his house at dinnertime.”

“And this,” I said.  “I found it in the upstairs hallway.”  I help up a bullet.

Willie put out her hand.

“Did you have one of the bankers here last night?” I asked.

“This isn’t from a banker’s gun,” said Willie.  “It’s for a .38.”

“How do you know?”

Willie reached under her pillow and pulled out a gun.  With a flick of her wrist she opened the cylinder, slid the bullet in the chamber, and snapped the cylinder back in place. “That’s how I know.”

Willie can be gruff, but she’s very well aware of the gem that Josie is and, as we learn, will do almost anything to protect her.

Josie’s growing desires to be admitted to Smith, to somehow find the money to pay the tuition, room and board, and to avoid Cincinnati, her mother’s murderous boyfriend, consume her and drive the plot. And a compelling plot it is. 

I’m not the only member of the book club who couldn’t put this book down. We’ll be reading more of Ruta Sepetys in coming months!

— Jeanie Smith