This (just) post-civil war novel brings together George Walker, an aging gentleman who lives in two-story “cabin” outside of Old Ox, Georgia, and brothers Prentiss and Landry – formerly enslaved by George’s neighbor, Ted Morton, now camping on George’s land. George is wealthy by local standards as he inherited a lot of land. He’s a cipher to the locals, the son of Northerners, progressive in his thinking, a bit of a studious dreamer, talkative without giving away too much and with no need to work. Isobel, his wife is similarly considered a strange bird. George does their cooking. She has some roses but tends them sporadically. She knits. She cleans house, but she also is dreamer. Neither considered marriage seriously till they found each other. George and Isobel have one son, Caleb, who left home to fight for the Confederacy, largely to be beside his lifelong friend, August Webler.
The Sweetness of Water is both a lovely book and a painful book, which makes sense when freedom and individuality are hard won and resented all around by those favoring the status quo. Every character in this book is richly drawn. Likewise, the many relationships, informed by childhood trauma, by tradition, by wealth, by poverty, by biology are painstakingly and wonderfully portrayed. Throughout, we learn the intricacies of a marriage that works… kind of .. between two strong, appealing but uncommunicative people, with unconventional interests. Their innermost thoughts and beliefs about one another and their caring is strong, yet they do not really understand the other. Does one ever understand one’s partner?
Prentiss and Landry, formerly enslaved on a cotton plantation by Morton, a violent master, are as close as people can get. They only have each other. Morton sold their mother when she could no longer serve him usefully. Each is the holder of the other’s childhood, one more traumatic than the other but hard to say what that means under the circumstances. Landry is silent and often off in his own world while Prentiss is notably bright, an excellent observer of human nature, suitably cautious while learning to actually speak his thoughts and make plans for the future. He practices some ideas on George but he also knows to keep his own counsel. George is practicing too, at being a farmer. He has tried on so many failing ideas in the past, that this venture is suspect from the start. Meanwhile, because the town is aware George and Isobel have been friendly to the brothers, animosity grows against them. Where once they were just odd, now they may be enemies.
Caleb and August are best friends in an unequal relationship, each profoundly shaped and affected by their fathers. Mr Webler is coarse and harsh. George is absent even when he’s present. George’s only friends seem to be his father’s best friend and a woman of the night who listens to him tell her his deepest thoughts. Isobel’s best friend, a widow, supports her in the face of others’ rejections or confusion about how to be with Isobel. One doesn’t always speak plainly in the South, where we all know “bless your heart” does not mean “bless your heart.” That was even truer post-Civil war with the conventions of social interactions well-defined. Acceptable behavior didn’t include fraternizing with formerly enslaved people. The town of Old Ox is itself a character. I love when places come alive in such a way that I can imagine the streets, who is walking near me, the smell of horse manure and sawdust from the lumberyard and food from the taverns. Union forces are there, but not yet the serious enforcers and certainly not the carpetbaggers. Change is in the air. Tempers run hot.
Ultimately, The Sweetness of Water is about a group of interconnected people: formerly enslaved people, former slaveholders, miscellaneous townspeople (with various degrees of standing and power), Union army occupiers, poor people, rich people, returned Confederate soldiers, all faced with uncertainty beyond anything they ever dreamed possible. It’s a slice of what might have happened in a small town and rural area the year after the war ended. It is about good and evil, pettiness and generosity, gratitude and meanness. There is no definitive resolution to most of the individual stories, which was disconcerting at first. But I found I had a a deep satisfaction in thinking and thinking about each person’s fate. Harris gives enough to suggest where folks are headed in life and how their post-war experiences shaped their destinies.
I read this as an audio book. William DeMerritt read it and his work was prize-worthy! His voicing of the characters was spot on, timing, phrasing and emphasis were perfect. I’m going to actively look for his reading.