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 Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I started this book with a bunch of trepidation because of the strange title. Who would have thought of a story about a snail? Who would have thought that watching a snail go about its daily life would help someone get through a devastating illness? Who, also, would have completed so much excessive factual research into a small, relatively insignificant animal?

I mean, how interesting can a snail be? Entirely captivating, as it turns out. Enjoying reading the book slowly, I found that perhaps there’s something to be said for moving at a snail’s pace. I found the book to be a fascinating glimpse into the life of an animal most of us ignore or even dislike, and ended up with a new-found appreciation for a miraculous little creature that I never thought much about before — except that I hated them eating my hostas every Spring. 

In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s account of her uncommon encounter with a common woodland snail (she never gave it a name) when she is bedridden with a mysterious pathogen she contracted during a trip to Europe. She withstood long months unable to even turn over in bed without exhausting herself, spending those months in a room with a window she couldn’t see out of and surrounded by plain white walls.

But, one day a friend brings her a pot of wild violets with—of all things—a snail in it. The mere idea of the responsibility for this is almost overwhelming for Elizabeth, but the quiet, slow, peacefulness of the snail gradually wins her over. What started as a bizarre unwanted gift became her main focus and companion.

Spending long hours watching the snail, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal. She found that a snail’s world is far more interesting than one might imagine as they get by with only three senses—smell, taste, and touch. She became fascinated and intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, clear decision making, hydraulic (slimy) locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities (e.g. Romantic encounters between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish!)

Set over the course of one year, she and the snail share an intimate journey of survival and resilience. With a naturalist’s curiosity, and told with wit and grace, Bailey delves into a wealth of gastropod literature, filling her chapters with fascinating mollusk biology (They have thousands of teeth! They can mate with themselves!)

Author Bailey reminds us that every living creature is here for a reason. Her book is well-written and is one of those sleeper books that could become a classic. The only thing that would have made it better would have been color photographs.

— Kenn Johnson

Classic Restaurants of Des Moines and Their Recipes, by Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby

I moved to Des Moines in 1970 and have always enjoyed eating out in Des Moines restaurants, so was very pleased to get a copy of Darcy Maulsby’s new book. What a fantastic gift for food-loving residents in Iowa. It was such fun to flip through these pages and reminisce about past dining adventures in Des Moines and see recipes for favorite local dishes. So, after reading a few chapters, and enjoying it so much, I recommended it to my book club, which agreed to read it.

In the early 70’s most of the restaurants in Des Moines, it seemed, were Italian. We tried them all: Johnny’s Vets Club, Fatinos, Tursi’s Latin King, Noah’s Ark, Chuck’s, Gino’s, even Alice’s Spaghettiland (even though it was a long drive). Later in years, we went frequently to Ajno’s as it was nearby our house. But, after a while other types of restaurants also became popular.

When I worked for Iowa Hospital Association in the early ’70s, I officed on Ingersoll, not too far from Colorado Feed and Grain. We often stopped there after work for drinks, and occasionally at dinner there. We were so regular that the waitresses all knew what we meant when we ordered our “usual”. We also ate lunch regularly at close by Maxie’s. I remember smelling like french fries after returning to work. I still eat at their West Des Moines place and always enjoy the Maxieburger.

Also in the 70’s and 80’s my wife and I ate at Bishop’s Cafeteria, as our good friend (and best man at our wedding) was the manager there and often joined him and his wife for dinner there. About the same time, the top of the Holiday Inn was a favorite place, as it rotated once every hour, giving a great view of Des Moines.

Without my wife knowing, I used to sneak out to get an occasional drink at Ruthie’s, who was famous for balancing a beer glass on each of her 48DD’s. Another place I went to without my wife (as she hated it) was George the Chili King. It was handy for lunch and I loved their chiliburgers.

Later, in the 90’s and beyond, Court Avenue was a favorite place in the evenings. Spaghetti Works, Kaplan Hat Co.,  The Metz, Gringo’s, and Julio’s were regular evening haunts for my wife and I and our kids. I also officed downtown and spent many lunch hours there.

For many years (not so much recently) we regularly attended the State Fair. We even camped out there a couple of years with good friends. Our favorites were corn dogs, pork tenders, and turkey legs. Although Darcy mentioned that the food there never changes, the DM Register published an article on July 13 that specified that there are 63 creative new dishes at the Fair this August.

For many years, I regularly ate breakfast with a business partner at the Drake Diner, and since then, our grandchildren love to go there for dinner in the evenings. We also used to go regularly to Stella’s Blue Sky Diner (at both the one in the Skywalk and in Clive), but stopped going there after finding a bandaid in my dinner.

Darcy included a large chapter about Babe Bisignano and Babe’s, his famous restaurant. What a life he led, and she covered it from his early life and well beyond. I remember often going there to eat and he was always going around, visiting with all the customers and often offering them a free drink. After I bought a downtown restaurant in 1988, I found that the previous owner had taken a lot of the restaurant equipment. But Babe took me down to his basement and gave me a dishwasher and other equipment — for free. He had a colorful personality, tough exterior, but a kind heart.

Now for a review of the book:

Author Maulsby serves up a “feast” of Des Moines restaurant classics, mixed with their history, complete with iconic recipes. She brings back many fond memories for anyone who has visited or lived around Des Moines.

In addition to writing about many restaurants in the Des Moines area, she also covered a number of famous people, including Ronald Reagan, who lived in Des Moines in the 30’s, and Roger Williams, who as an 18-year old kid majoring in music in Des Moines, got his first professional job playing piano at Babe’s, and went on to become one of the world’s most famous pianists. She even covered the life of Edna Griffin, who, on July 7, 1948, was denied service at the downtown Katz Drug Store. Her actions preceded Rosa Parks’ bus ride, and resulted in civil actions every bit as important in attacking racism.

And, Darcy covered a number of other restaurants I have enjoyed over the years, including Taste of Thailand, Younkers Tea Room, Big Daddy’s BBQ, The Pier, King Ying Low’s, Maid Rite and The Machine Shed. And well beyond restaurants and recipes, she also gives savory stories of race relations, women’s rights, Iowa Caucus politics, the arts, immigration and assimilation.

In conclusion, it was such a “delicious” book of local history and food — and such fun to scan through the pages, bringing back so many special memories of Des Moines eateries. I highly recommend it.

Ken Johnson