I was slightly concerned The Sweetness of Water would turn out to be one of those message-driven novels that kind of loses all its subtlety bringing down the message. I did not need to have worried. Harris has written a novel with many layers: a clear message, main characters that are carefully constructed and circumstances in which right or wrong cannot always be strictly defined.
The circumstances: the American Civil War has just come to an end, the South has lost, both sides have suffered many victims, slavery is abolished, peace and quiet are not to be found as et. In the small village of Old Ox the end of the war has only made clear who are the powers that be, an end to slavery does not signify an end to injustice and cruelty.
Two former enslaved young boys, the brothers Landry and Prentiss, have left the plantation they have always been made to work. They intent to move up north, in search of a better future. The offer of wealthy landowner George Walker to work for hem for a while, receiving full payment, is accepted – with some trepidation. None of them can know this offer is the start of a series of dramatic events.
George Walker has always been an outsider. He has inherited land and money from his father, he has never had to work in order to make a living. His wife Isabella is used to his sligthly peculiar behaviour and accepts him for who he is. Accepting the arrival of Landry and Prentiss, moving into her barn. Their arrival helps her cope with her son’s death.
Neither George nor Isabella realise their neighbours are hardly enthusiastic about them hiring and paying well two former enslaved men. It is quite clear that the previous owners of the enslaved were kind of hoping they’d just stick around en keep on working for them, for free. Landry and Prentiss set the wrong example. When George and Isabella are told to send the boys away, they refuse. They chose to help people, colour not a determining factor.
I’ll not give away what sets into motion a series of dramatic events. You have to read The Sweetness in order to find out. I was impressed by the nuanced way Harris shows us the ways war and slavery effect live in a village. The way the powers that be do not want any change, do not welcome do-gooders like George and Isabella who do not take into account vested interests. No surprise the Klu Klux Klan will spring into action in a few years time. Old Ox is just your average village in which good and bad are both alive and kicking.
Harris is a talented writer who produces beautiful language and knows how to play with perspective. He goes from George to Landry to Prentiss to Isabella, the variety allowing him to go back in time. To early memories of the boy’s mother, of their suffering as enslaved people. To the first meeting between George and Isabella, to George’s mother mercilessly selling the young house slave George has befriended.
Awful events take place in The Sweetness of Water. Harris fortunately does not describe them explicitly. The nuance of the novel once more shows when at such a precise moment George’s toughest opponent realises George is not the enemy, has been a good neighbour for years. The nuance also shows in the ending. Old Ox is preparing for years and years of violence and racism, George and Isabella who chose their own paths, not bothering about the colour of one’s skin, provide hope that one day all will be well.
The Sweetness of Water is a beautiful novel, in which Harris addresses many wrongs. He does so relentlessly nuanced. The novel never becomes blatantly loud. This nuance is what stresses the human behaviour that irrevocably will lead to violence, pain and many wrongs.