The Sweetness of Water – the latest selection from the Oprah Book Club – takes place in Georgia during the gloomy twilight of the Civil War. Union soldiers have marched through the state telling enslaved blacks that they are free, but that freedom exists in the ruins of a white society seething with resentment and determined to assert its superiority.
That this powerful book is Nathan Harris’ debut novel is remarkable; It’s a miracle that he’s only 29. His prose is polished with an antique patina reminiscent of the middle of the 19th century. And he examines this critical moment in our history with extraordinary sensitivity to the range of responses from black and white Americans struggling with a revolutionary ideal of personality.
The story begins in a fugue of grief. George Walker wanders through his 200 acre forest. As a northern child brought to Georgia decades ago, George never developed sympathy for the southern cause. But the end of the war between the states gives him no pleasure. He has just received news that his only Confederate enrolled son was killed in the final weeks of the battle.
He died in a moment of panic and ran “towards the Union line as if they could regret his screams, see him through the billow of smoke and grant his surrender and not shoot him down with the others”. Now the father’s shame is intensified. “Who was the bigger coward,” he wonders, “the boy because he died without courage, or George because he couldn’t tell his own mother that she would never see her son again?”
Just as George realizes he’s somehow lost his way on his own property, he meets two black men, Landry and Prentiss, brothers who were born and raised on a neighbor’s farm. Far from the city it is a tense encounter, neither side knows what to expect from the other. The black men have been released so recently that they still reflexively identify with their owner. “We belong to Mr. Morton,” announces one of them. “Well, was.”
“You could go anywhere,” George tells the brothers.
“We intend to do that,” says Prentiss. “It is simply beautiful.”
“To be left alone for a while,” says Prentiss. “Isn’t that why you are out here yourself, Mr. Walker?”
In this strange collision of grief and emancipation, an unusual friendship germinates. George tries desperately to distract himself from the death of his only child. After years of leisurely isolation, he longs for a project, something that he can leave behind as a testimony to his own existence.
And so, right now, he’s forging a bold plan to start growing peanuts, and he’s going to hire these two to work for him.
For their part, the brothers have no intention of staying in this bondage-tainted place. “Your life could now begin,” says the narrator, “and it was time to shape it as you saw fit.” But Harris has a deep sense of the complications of freedom. Landry and Prentiss have never left the confines of Mr. Morton’s Farm. They have no map, no food, no friends, and no prospect of employment in a ruined state that is already inundated with idle Confederate soldiers.
What’s worse, Mr. Morton routinely beat Landry so brutally that the young man is now mute. He is an impressive example of Harris’ ability to suggest the vast area of trauma with just a careful portrayal of a man’s ordeal.
Caught at the end of their sudden freedom, Prentiss and Landry reluctantly agree to work for George on his insane peanut farm. All of this is drawn with great fidelity to these cautious characters struggling to reshape the world, or at least that little part of it.
Prentiss is determined that he and his brother will not fall victim to the old model of exploitation. And George envisions using the power of his own idealism to create an oasis based on the principle of a living wage offered regardless of a man’s skin color.
If George is naive, there is nothing naive about Harris or the story he is telling. Much of the first section of the novel explores the way the loss of their son drives George and his wife into separate mourning silos. The work that George Trost donates is not available to his wife, who simply has to endure the pain on her own.
But “The Sweetness of Water” quickly accelerates beyond the Walkers ‘lamentations or Prentiss’ satisfaction with his new employer. And soon Harris plays another dramatic subplot that involves the secret affection of two former Confederate soldiers who have no context to understand their desires or openly express their love.
Harris purposely stacks the beams of this property, and as soon as a spark hits the entire structure begins to burn hot. Old secrets and passions prevail, and George learns that his determination to treat a pair of blacks with respect is an affront his neighbors cannot stand.
The most impressive thing about Harris’ novel is how he takes care of the lives of these peculiar people while capturing the tectonic tensions in the American South. In scenes set in the city we see that even while the Union’s military administrators try to assert their control, defeated white Georgians are already conspiring to reconstruct the old racial hierarchy through a system of slave wages and vigilante justice.
Then, as now, terrible compromises are tolerated in the name of a peace that for some is not peace. Finally, as a writer, Harris wields a kind of fiery Old Testament justice that is both satisfying and terrifying. But if this is an era – and a genre – that leaves no room for encouragement, “The Sweetness of Water” is finally ready to create a little oasis of hope.