The Sweetness of Water

Nathan Harris

Little, Brown and Co.

Prentiss retreated into himself. He knew how to live in his head. He’d made a similar journey every day in the fields, wandering in his mind’s eye to a place he’d never been, a place that was equal parts destination and idea. Elsewhere was the only name it carried. The barn beside George’s cabin was elsewhere; a patch of free ground up north was elsewhere; his mother was elsewhere; salvation was elsewhere […] and a fate, any fate, other than the one that lay before him would be a perfectly fine road to elsewhere. The map, with all its many variations, was in his head, yet he knew quite well he would never make the journey.

                from The Sweetness of Water



When the times are a-changin’ and people don’t.

During times of great upheaval, old norms and traditions are swept away and people must often find new ways of relating to others, even within their own families.

At the end of the civil war and the early days of Reconstruction, Union soldiers patrol the streets of Old Ox, Georgia, an occupying army to maintain order and enforce the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the enslaved peoples of the South. It is a time of bitterness, disorientation, and uncertainty.

Added to all this, George Walker and his wife Isabelle are grief stricken at the news that their only son Caleb was killed in the waning days of the war.

Living alone on their farm outside town, George and Isabelle are quiet, solitary types “who would rather leave a moment naked than tar it with wasted words.” Now, unable to turn to each other, either to give or receive emotional support, they each hibernate within their souls--“No matter how unbearable (George) found it to wallow in his wife’s misery, he knew that it was the better option than making contact with his own grief.”

Into George and Isabelle’s lives come two Freedmen from a neighboring farm: Prentiss, sharp-witted, observant, and socially astute, and his large, powerful brother, Landry, introspective and made mute by a broken jaw he suffered as a child. The brothers are on their way north, seeking a new life for themselves and hoping to find their mother who was sold years before.

George offers them work, clearing land and helping him put in a crop of peanuts, paying them fair wages to earn money for their trip north. Now freed of the cultural roles of the antebellum South, the two Whites and two Blacks must invent new ways of relating to each other, along with re-inventing themselves and reconfiguring their lives to survive.

But old ways die hard—or often, as we still witness 150 years after the war, they don’t die at all—and the townspeople of Old Ox become threatened by the way the four have reframed their lives, not least George paying former slaves the same wages as a white man.

Amid the ongoing grief, turmoil and cultural disruption, people’s better and worst natures are revealed in this lyrical, beautifully written novel of the old South trying to find its way to a new identity.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15, 2021.) Reprinted with permission.