Evocative and accessible, Nathan Harris’ debut novel Thewater humidity is a historical page turner on social frictions so powerful that they ignite an entire city.
Old Ox, Georgia is a community trying to recover from tectonic upheaval. Focusing on the period immediately after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Appomattox and the imposition of emancipation in the South through the presence of Union troops, Harris asks a question Americans did not still resolved: how does a community make peace in the wake of civil war war? I’m not sure the novel is anywhere near finding an answer. But to ask the question and to follow the work undertaken nevertheless seemed to me incredibly interesting.
Between Oprah’s Book Club, President Obama’s Summer Reading List, and the Booker Prize Long List, The softness of the water it’s living a moment that goes beyond current events. There are several reasons for this: First, his question seems urgent and familiar, because politics now looks like war. Between the January uprising, the threat of Texas secession, and the daily rhetoric of combat and revolution, battles continue, not only at the party level but also at the regional level. Second, the peacemaking project attempted in these pages is still clearly unfinished. Like a fictional companion in the story of Clint’s Smith How the word went, the softness of the water joins the national conversation about race and calculation with history already underway. In the struggles for flags, monuments, textbooks, and university tenure, we still struggle over how to frame this event in public memory, so that these old wounds look especially fresh. Nathan Harris makes these extraordinary, ever-contested times understandable through an immersive and incredibly human storytelling about the lives of ordinary people.
And third, right now we desperately need to believe in our best angels, that we too can come together and rise above, like the protagonists of Harris (and as President Obama has called for). This hope is the engine of The softness of the water. It takes off when three men meet by chance in the woods – two blacks, one white. George Walker, an aging white landowner, has spent too much time hunting elusive prey when he meets Landry and Prentiss, two young black freedmen who secretly live in the forest on George’s property because they have zero where to go, and lack of resources to move forward. They only know that they would rather be anywhere than return to their old plantation, where the owner completely denies emancipation and still considers the two men to be his rightful property.
An unlikely connection takes root
Despite mutual apprehension, the three decide to treat each other with care. Slightly disoriented and in pain, George asks for help getting back to his cabin and his wife, and he offers the two brothers food and shelter in the barn. It doesn’t sound like much, but in this context, cooperation is an act of kindness and trust. Plus, there is more to Geoge’s wandering that day; he had just received the (erroneous) news that his son, Caleb, a Confederate soldier, had been killed in action and was afraid to share this with his wife.
In the days that follow, a connection takes root. Deprived himself, George doesn’t know how to help his grieving wife, but he must do something. So if he has always avoided industry, with the help of Landry and Prentiss, he decides to start cultivating his land. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement, a requirement on both sides: Landry and Prentiss will not agree to a new master-slave type arrangement of the kind that is proliferating in the region, and that is fine, as George has no desire. to be a master. He has always lived outside of Old Ox, in geography and attitudes. For him, it is no different. He will therefore pay them a fair wage, the same as all other (white) workers. The brothers agree to work until they can save the money to move north, and George gets help starting his new business.
Emancipation or not, this agreement constitutes a break with secular social arrangements. And so, even though their business doesn’t directly affect anyone else in Old Ox, every white person nearby has an opinion about it, as if the mere existence of Landry and Prentiss was another affront and an attack on their lives. From there, Harris tells an increasingly complex story about the postwar South, and he tells it in a human and intimate way, exploring people-to-people relationships of all kinds in and around this city. rural Georgia.
They are all connected and interdependent; a fracture or ripple in one inevitably affects the others. Walkers who treat Landry and Prentiss with respect not only cause a ripple in these relationships, but rather a revolt. The petty nastiness of reactions to the Walkers’ arrangement with Landry and Prentiss can be infuriating, and yet it rings true: American history is littered with events that began with a violation of racial etiquette. In small moments, Harris convincingly captures the thoughts and actions of ordinary people who are trying to go through extraordinary moments. And while the story focuses on hope and the unexpected kinship, it does not diminish the horrors of slavery or the struggle that ensued. The events of their past lives are never far from memory – whipping, beating, disfiguring physical violence, separation from family, near starvation, dehumanization. None of this is denied. None of this is understated. Like the brothers, Harris tries to focus elsewhere for a while.
Water taps into a deep American thirst
As an act of pure storytelling, it skyrockets. On a deeper level, however, some aspects of the novel seem unstable and incomplete. The softness of the water taps into America’s long-standing and deep thirst for fantasies of racial reconciliation – stories in which blacks and whites find salvation together, bonding in the face of the blatant extreme racism of others. As appealing as they are, these accounts tend to reproduce certain problematic patterns. First, while appearing to focus on critical issues, these accounts highlight individual exceptions to systemic issues that require real consideration. Second, even in stories where black people should naturally be the center of attention (as in Ugly and Green book) they tend to marginalize black characters to center and affirm the virtue of good whites. And third, they can provide an easy discharge without further thought (see again Help, Green Paper).
I felt these tensions acutely while reading this novel, but if it flirts with the edge, it doesn’t quite fall into the abyss. The difference is that The softness of the water is not a story about what happened to slaves after slavery ended, co-opted to focus on a white family. It’s a soapy and captivating exploration of fracture and healing. The emphasis on interracial casting is a necessity, a feature rather than a flaw.
I only wish that the whole would be a little more interested in the fullness of its black characters; I wanted to spend more than scraps of time with Landry, Prentiss and Clementine, George’s confidante. It’s easy to love George and Isabelle – and Caleb, ultimately – but I don’t think they’re inherently more worthy of our attention and nuance, or even more essential to the redemption story told. The novel seems to follow the logic that it is the white inhabitants of Old Ox whose adjustments to postwar life most deserve our attention. But if Landry and Prentiss are worthy of leading the action, if they are worthy of risk and economy, then they are worthy of depth. They are beautiful characters that I would have liked to know better.
The story is gripping – but the omissions are hard to ignore
They are not the only ones to be overlooked. The softness of the water is very selective about where he throws his lens. It is a story both inscribed in history, but distant from it. In the focus on the Walkers and what they do for Landry and Prentiss, there is also a glaring omission of the realities of postwar life elsewhere in Old Ox. While Harris is generous to these few white southerners, he excludes facts essential to understanding the world they inhabit, even if they are far away.
Harris captures the anger and resentment of whites at the loss of whites’ livelihoods, way of life and status. The novel briefly refers to the brutal return to society of white men who returned from a lost war with no work and no money and no restoration of pride. But at that time, the losses were not only symbolic or even material. The civil war has also claimed huge lives, one in five young men, according to some estimates. But there is an ominous silence on those who did not return – the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the war and how their absence shaped the lives of those they left behind. Where were these widows, fathers, mothers and friends? As much as I have been captivated by The softness of the water the drama and storytelling as I was at the heart of it, at the end of it I felt its omissions and oversights just as intensely.
Slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communications specialist with a focus on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.