Review 1489: The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker is a slave on a Virginia plantation with a photographic memory and a talent for mimicry. As a boy, he attracts the attention of the master, who is also his father. His father has Hiram educated for a year, and the naïve boy imagines he might take an important place on the plantation, but the master’s intention is simply to have Hiram keep his heir, Maynard, out of trouble.

One day on the way back from town, the carriage, being driven recklessly by Maynard, goes into the river. Maynard is drowned, and Hiram wakes up in a field far away from the river. Hiram begins to fear he’ll be sold off to Maynard’s fiancée, Corinne. So, he plots an escape for himself and his master’s brother’s concubine, Sophia.

The Water Dancer has aspirations to literature, and that was one of my problems with it. Occasionally high-flown prose runs from the lyrical to the clichéd. Some of the conversations are absurdly unlikely. One of Coates’s affectations was for the slaves to call themselves the Tasked, which seems to be hardly authentic; in any case, I could find no other such use of the word.

Sometimes, the action slows almost to a halt. For example, Hiram falls into the water on page one and doesn’t come out until about page 100, during which Coates provides background. I’ve run into approaches like this before lately, and all I can say is that something like this that works in a movie doesn’t translate well to fiction, where you are reading for hours over a time that is supposed to be a few minutes.

Coates’s goal here isn’t to tell about the cruelties of slavery so much as to put his tale on a higher plane. He also introduces an element of speculative fiction.

I struggled with this book for about a week and decided to quit halfway through. At that point it was becoming clear that Sophia would have a bigger role, but her character was so little defined that I felt she was almost a MacGuffin. I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with Coates.

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Day 1092: Commonwealth

Cover for CommonwealthIt’s difficult to explain what Commonwealth is about without either telling too much or failing to make it sound interesting. Yet, it is a very interesting novel about how one afternoon changes the lives of everyone in two families, or at least that’s partially what it’s about.

The novel begins when Albert Cousins, an attorney from the district attorney’s office, crashes a christening for Fix and Beverly Keating’s youngest daughter. Fix only vaguely knows Bert Cousins from his work as a police officer. Bert has crashed the party in an effort to get away from his own household with his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa, as he does every weekend.

But once Bert sets eyes on Beverly Keating, he decides she is his future. One kiss in the upstairs bedroom with a sleeping child begins an affair that results in divorce for both families.

The novel concentrates on the effects of this divorce on both sets of children. Although Carolyn and Franny Keating beg year after year to stay in California with their dad, they are uprooted to Virginia to live with their mother when she and Bert move back to his home state. Bert demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t care to be around his own children, but he wins custody of them for the whole of each summer, while Teresa gets a job and keeps it together the rest of the year by the skin of her teeth. The result is that the kids grow up with virtually no supervision, especially in the summer, when Bert leaves everything to Beverly, who can’t cope.

This novel reminded me in some ways of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, although it spans only about 45 or 50 years. However, it felt that the characters in this novel are much more knowable. I always enjoy Patchett’s writing, and her novels are all different from each other. I enjoyed this one very much.

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Day 817: The Hornet’s Nest

Cover for The Hornet's NestIt is 30 years after the Battle of Culloden, but Highland Scots are still forbidden by their English overlords to wear the plaid, play bagpipes, or honor their heritage in other ways. Rebellious Lauchlin MacLeod and her brother Ronald, teenage children of Laird Kildornie, are always finding themselves in trouble.

So it is on the day they meet their cousin Matthew Lennox, a gentleman from Virginia journeying to visit his English and Scottish relatives. Lauchlin is marveling that this Sassenach is related to her family and doesn’t realize he has been escorted there by a troop of redcoats. She just barely avoids being caught wearing a kilt while her brother hides in the bushes with his bagpipe.

In town showing Cousin Matthew the sights, Ronald and Lauchlin attack some boys who are torturing a kitten. Later Sergeant Tucker arrives at their home to tell them that the boys are the children of Captain Green, the new area commander. The boys have lied about the cause of the attack, and Captain Green isn’t as likely as the previous commander to overlook their behavior. The next incident could be serious.

Cousin Matthew has a solution. Lauchlin and Ronald can travel to Virginia and live with his sister Lavinia until things calm down. Secretly, he enlists them to send news and drawings, for Lauchlin is a gifted caricaturist, about doings in the colonies for a paper he is founding in London called The Gadfly.

So, Lauchlin and Ronald set out for the colonies accompanied by their kitten Haggis. They arrive in Williamsburg in 1773, just in time to witness the lead-up to the American Revolution. It’s not too difficult to imagine where their sympathies lie.

This novel effortlessly mixes the viewpoints from both sides of the revolution, for their Lennox relatives are Loyalists, and some are charming characters. Lauchlin is an ebullient scamp, Ronald a boy who must learn that all Sassenachs are not the same. Their many Virginian cousins dislike them at first but then most of them learn to love them. And Haggis has his own distinctive personality.

This novel is one of my favorites so far of the Watson books I’ve newly discovered, because it is less unlikely than some of them and has really enjoyable characters. Plus, it provides an unusual viewpoint of the American Revolution. Young teens and tweens should love this book.

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Day 790: Jade

Cover for JadeOf the Sally Watson books I rediscovered, Jade is one I haven’t read before. I’ve mentioned that Watson wrote several of her novels around a person from her own ancestry, but it is not clear to me if the outlines of each story are based on family legend or are just invented around the events of the time. This question becomes of special interest in regard to Jade, which is the least likely of Watson’s books to date, even if part of it is based on history.

Jade’s real name is Melanie Lennox, but she much prefers her old nickname. She is a rebellious girl completely taken up by her own ideas of right and wrong. She is especially incensed by slavery and women’s lack of rights, which makes early 18th century Williamburg an uncomfortable place for her and for her family, who doesn’t know what to do with her.

The last straw for Jade’s father is when he finds she has been sneaking off to meet Monsieur Maupin, an elderly Frenchman, for fencing lessons. Tired of beating her, her father ships her off to Jamaica to live with her aunt and uncle. With her goes her slave Joshua, whom she’s been trying to free since she was 10.

In Jamaica, she is disgusted by the slave market and the treatment of field slaves, so her aunt and uncle are surprised when she wants to buy a proud untamed African woman, whom she names Domino. But Jade sees something in Domino that reminds her of herself. In fact, Jade isn’t really getting along any better in Jamaica, but doesn’t stay there long.

Jade’s aunt and uncle hear of yellow fever on the island, so they dispatch Jade and her two slaves back to Virginia. They return on the same ship they came on, but this time it is loaded with slaves. Jade decides to try to free the slaves, in which effort she doesn’t realize she’s assisted by the sardonic second mate, Rory McDonald (whose grandmother was Kelpie from Witch of the Glen).

I wasn’t quite prepared for what happens next, but maybe I should have been. Their ship is attacked by pirates and she and Rory and some other crew members and the slaves decide to join the pirates. Well, Jade and Rory are taken on board unconscious, but like Elizabeth Swann of Pirates of the Caribbean, Jade at first decides it’s “a pirate’s life for me.” Only later does her view of the life become more nuanced.

The novel’s plot is unlikely, even though it is based on the life of the famous pirate, Anne Bonny (spelled Bonney in the novel), whose ship our characters end up on. And Jade is not strictly likable, her character being so full of self-righteousness and so unbending that she can’t tell a polite lie. Also, the novel tends much more to the preachy than those I’ve read so far of Watson’s.

Still, this novel is probably a good one for insights into the abuses of the time, while still providing plenty of adventure. Little feminists in the making will be sympathetic to the restrictions Jade struggles with, such as her dislike of what she must wear, her lack of rights as a woman, and the limits to what she’s allowed to do. I personally think she’s too much of a 20th century girl, but young girls won’t even think of that.

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Day 225: The Devil All the Time

Cover for The Devil All the TimeTruly gritty noir seems to come out of rural settings these days instead of the city. Such is the case with The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock.

Arvin Russell is having a tough childhood in the backwoods town of Meade in southern Ohio. His mother is dying of cancer, and his grief-crazed father Willard has set up a “praying log” where he sacrifices animals and makes Arvin pray for hours on end. When his mother dies, his father commits suicide by hanging himself at the praying log.

Back in Willard Russell’s home town of Coal Creek, Virginia, Brother Roy Laferty is a preacher who eats bugs for the glory of God and travels around with his crippled friend Theodore, a gay pedophile. Roy marries Helen, the woman Willard’s mother wanted him to marry, but later, egged on by Theodore, he murders her. The two start off on a spree of serial killing.

As Arvin grows up in Coal Creek with his grandmother, another couple from Meade haunts the highways of the midwest. Carl and Sandy Henderson pick up hitchhiking men. Carl has Sandy seduce them so that he can murder them and take photographs of Sandy with their bodies.

Lee Bodecker, the policeman who accompanied Arvin back to his father’s body when he was a boy, is now the corrupt sheriff of Meade, Ohio. He knows his sister Sandy is a prostitute but is unaware of her more sinister activities with Carl.

Now grown, Arvin has spent his high school years protecting his unattractive, devout cousin Leonora from the taunts of his school fellows. The town is excited because of the arrival of the new preacher, Preston Teagardin, a nephew of the dedicated Reverend Sykes. But Teagardin is not quite as dedicated as his uncle, and he also has an eye for the young girls. He decides that a naive, religious girl might be a good place to start.

The fates of all these people are soon to converge in a way that won’t be pretty. The flavor of the grotesque and perverse echoes of Flannery O’Connor and other Southern Gothic writers. With hardly a redeeming character to be found, we have to wonder if Pollock is simply revelling in his ability to produce such depravity.