Reckoning Freedom

The American Civil War (April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865) is one of the most storied and seminal historical events that has characterized modern American history. The fight for supremacy between the Confederate Army and the Union has highlighted the rift between the north and the deep south, the vestiges of which continue to reverberate in the contemporary. It is the war’s role in shaping modern American history that has made it, and its consequences, an irresistible subject for writers. Over the years, several novels about the war have been published, some even earning global recognition. One book that comes to mind is Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gone with the Wind (1936), widely regarded as a literary classic. Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997) also captured the ill effects of the war through the story of two star-crossed lovers. The book also went on to win an award, the National Book Award.

Continuing this long and strong literary tradition is Nathan Harris who captured the adverse effect of the War in his debut novel, The Sweetness of Water. Set in the fictional town of Old Ox in Georgia, the novel endeavored to capture the changes in tides that took place immediately after the culmination of the Civil War. The story commenced with George Walker, a wealthy landowner. Walker was originally from New England but moved to the Deep South where he married Isabelle. At the start of the story, he was aimlessly wandering in the woods near his estate, in search of a monster: “A black coat of fur that clung to the shadows, moving fluidly as if it were part of the darkness itself.”

Roaming around the woodlands near his home was Walker’s routine; it was a means of recreation for him. There was, however, a burden that weighed on him when he stepped into the woods that day. He just learned that his only son, Caleb, who joined the war, has perished in the frontlines after deserting the Confederate Army. He hasn’t informed Isabelle yet and was hoping to delay the delivery of the dreadful news to his wife by finding comfort in the woods. As if on cue, he crossed paths with two brothers, Prentiss and Landry, two slaves who previously worked in the plantation of Walker’s wicked neighbor. Because of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, the brothers have become free.

“He could think only of the rituals. Not his own people’s, but those he’d heard of on other plantations. Men and women gathering when certain stars aligned and heating clay, smearing themselves whole, dancing naked, first in unison but then alone, twirling endlessly, as though if they twirled fast enough they might spin themselves right into the ground and return to the earth.”

~ Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water

When Prentiss and Landry met Walker, they were headed to the North. They were hoping to search for their mother in the north and their plan was to simply walk all the way through. Realizing the impracticability of their plan, Walker gave them an irresistible proposition. After the brothers helped him find his way home, Walker offered them work, not as slaves but as salaried workers. The job was simple: help Walker till the land and make it productive. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Walker got an extra hand to help farm his land. The brothers’ knowledge as farmers also comes in handy. Meanwhile, the brothers found a shelter, a job that pays, and food at the table. They can save the money they earned while mapping out the rest of their plan to move north. Despite the mutual apprehension, both parties eventually agreed to the arrangement.

The Sweetness of Water is a multilayered narrative that grappled with difficult subjects, most of which reverberate in the contemporary. With the story being set in the period immediately after the end of the Civil War, the smell of grief and death was a pervasive presence in the atmosphere. It hanged heavily in the air and hovered above every household that saw their sons go into the war. Parents await in tenterhook for their children’s arrival, if not whole, at least alive. Lucky were those whose sons survived the war and returned home safely; the casualty of the war is believed to be one death in every five individuals. The insurmountable loss was felt by every household. The most unfortunate, however, was the parents who never learned of their sons’ fate. Some, like the Walkers, received erroneous news.

The Restoration Era, which ensued after the War, was a challenging period, as captured by the novel. Towns, leveled to the ground, were trying to rise above the hubbub. All over Old Ox, the consequences of the war were felt. It was not lives that were lost but also livelihood, social status, and lifestyle. The townspeople were also trying to find their footing after their lives have been reset and irreversibly altered by the war. Many of those who were able to survive the war suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The survivors also endeavored to regain an ounce of dignity. The novel briefly touched on the weight of shame on soldiers who deserted the war. Was it an act of cowardice?

The impact of the resounding loss of the Confederate Army reverberated beyond what the eyes can see. Radical changes were sweeping the Deep South and the Union as a whole. The shift was abrupt and caught everyone off guard. The abolishment of slavery was one of the biggest changes that took place after the war. Expectedly, it elicited negative responses from slave and plantation owners as it entailed the loss of their primary means of living. This further exposed the dark side of humanity which, unfortunately, persists in the contemporary in different forms such as discrimination, racism, and the imposition of the fabled white privilege.

“And alongside this decision there was some forfeiture in the thought he found unsettling: that for every pound of weight they’d carried across their backs, for every drop of sweat that had poured off, no inch of this land was theirs. As long as they stayed, they were no better than the others, kept on the borders of town, hidden among the trees just like their brothers and sisters. And it grew clear that the only path to a life worth living would be found elsewhere, where they might not have more but could not possibly have less.”

~ Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water

In the context of change, the breaching of norms has also become prevalent. One of its biggest forms was the growing friendship between the Walkers and the brothers. It challenged the long-established power dynamics that prevailed for decades, the invisible lines that divided a group of people based on ethnic backgrounds. This slow paradigm shift has inevitably elicited the ire of the townspeople, even those within Walker’s social circles. The Walkers, however, were adamant and refused to give in to the pressures around them, with or without the influences of the emancipation. As history has shown, huge changes started with small steps. It is through these fissures on the surface that the most seminal, albeit radical, changes trickle in.

The kinship that developed between them was one of the novel’s heartwarming elements, especially in light of the events that transpired directly prior to their meeting. Taking root in this seemingly unusual relationship, the story diverged to capture intimate details of the Deep South, drawing in on the interpersonal relationship among the town’s denizens. However, what distinguishes the novel was its exploration of homosexual relationships in post-Civil War America. The Civil War, as depicted in literature, was dominated by virile masculine characters. The Sweetness of Water provided a different perspective, in a way, and challenged the long-established portraits that emanate from the war captured in published texts.

Beyond the horrors of the war, the novel resonated with hope. Harris provided a story of healing and of a group of people coming together in light of the war. We see men bridging the gaps created by history. But while the story inspires hope in the post-Civil War era, the novel did not gloss over the horrors of the slave trade and how its legacy reverberates in the contemporary. Slavery is part and parcel of history and for emancipated slaves, its memory still hangs heavily in the air. We read of the devaluation of human lives and their dignity by slave owners, of how the slaves were basically stripped of their liberty and of their lives, of how they were forcibly separated from their families, of how they had to endure these abuses for years. As much as hope drove the story, these excesses of the slave trade were never obscured by the story.

The debilitating effects of slavery were most ostensible on Landry. Physically imposing, he found himself the subject of his former owner’s transgressions. Punishments were meted to him, even for offenses that were not his fault; he was the proverbial whipping boy. All of these traumatic experiences left him muted and subservient to his younger brother. Landry’s only reprieve came in the form of a fountain located on the plantation the brothers previously worked for. It represented beauty and magic, and an escape from the ugly realities that surrounded him. However, it was something that he can never obtain.

“Such comments had once harmed her grievously, yet she’d developed a resistance to such attacks; from the stares in town and the words uttered behind her back. A hollow pit, somewhere within her, where she stored such viciousness away, let it die, then released it to the air to float off forever. She sensed it, somewhere beside her heart, a compartment at her core—her hand felt the spot, let it rest for a moment, before her anger settled and she closed the door to the cruelty of his words. “I”

~ Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water

The longing for something unreachable was a prevalent theme in the novel. Landry longed for beauty. One character, in his trysts, yearned for acceptance and understanding. He longs for a form of love that society views as taboo. George, on the other hand, was restless, and yet he was unable to single out the source of his edginess. This made him pursue it in the woodlands.  There was also a longing for companionship and longing for even the smallest hints of motherly love. But it was all these longings that made the development of the characters a scintillating experience. They all broke the chains that held them down and made their voices be heard through the din.

The novel’s outstanding elements were deftly woven together by Harris’ prose. His storytelling reeled the reader in. The tapestry was lush. It was a thought-provoking story that has earned recognition from former US President Barack Obama who included the book in his summer reading list. It also received praises from Oprah Winfrey and her book club. However, the novel was not without its slanders. Harris wrote beautifully both the interiors and exteriors of his characters but there the story careened towards the white characters. The impact of the Civil War was examined mainly from their perspective. While Landry and Prentiss were interesting characters, they were often left in the background as the white characters propelled the story forward. Their potential as characters were underexplored. It was a missed opportunity.

Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, The Sweetness of Water is a searing debut from an excitable new voice. Powerfully written, evocative, and thought-provoking, the story soared. Despite being set in the post-Civil War era, it carried important messages that reverberate in the contemporary. It is a conversation starter for the discourse on race. It provided a different lens upon which to examine important elements of history, from the ill effects of warfare to the irreversible impact of the slavery trade. It also captured a riveting portrait of humanity, written in a thought-provoking and insightful manner. Equally heartbreaking and brimming with hope, The Sweetness of Water is a moving and absorbing novel deserving of the encomium it has received.

‘His land was his only escape, the only place a man with such a narrowed existence might find a sense of adventure. So he kept the brothers around to keep that part of him alive. Yet where would he stand on the night when the men in town carried torches to his property and demanded payment on the misshapen justice they sought? He would not pay with his life.’

~ Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water
Rating

84%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
22%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

The 2021 Booker Prize longlist has provided me with some of my most interesting and fascinating reading experiences last year; by the end of the year, I was able to read ten of the thirteen books on the longlist. Of these ten books, one that made a lasting impression was The Sweetness of Water. Ironically enough, it was one of the books I wasn’t expecting too much from, mainly because I have never heard of Harris previously. But man did it deliver. The friendship that developed between Prentiss, Landry, and the Walkers immediately following the end of the Civil War was truly heartwarming. But what I loved about the story is that all the characters started as weak, weighed down by everything that surrounded them. But towards the end, they were all able to earn their voices. They didn’t let themselves be shackled to the ground. As the story progressed, it was fascinating to read them gain that courage. Sure, there were dark elements but the book’s insightful and thought-provoking messages made it soar. Hoping to read more of Harris’ prose in the future.

Book Specs

Author: Nathan Harris
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publishing Date: July 2021
Number of Pages: 357
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

A profound debut about the unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever.

In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry – freed by the Emancipation Proclamation – seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpecting friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.

Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussion on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.

With candor and sympathy, debut novelist Nathan Harris creates an unforgettable cast of characters, depicting Georgia in the violent crucible of Reconstruction. Equal parts beauty and terror, as gripping as it is moving, The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing circumstances.

About the Author

Nathan Harris is a native of Oregon. After graduating from the University of Oregon, Harris moved to San Francisco, California where he worked different jobs, including food delivery and legal assistant work for his mother. In 2013, he started working on his novel which he completed while studying as a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. He is a recipient of the University of Oregon’s Kidd Prize and was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize. He named J.M. Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison, and Flannery O’Connor as among his writing inspirations.

In 2021, his debut novel, The Sweetness of Water was published, to critical acclaim. It was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2022 Dylan Thomas Prize. It won the 2021 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Harris currently resides in Austin, Texas.