The Sweetness of Water

Listening to the critically-acclaimed The Sweetness of Water (2021) by Nathan Harris was like watching a disaster in slow motion. I knew some of the characters were going to be hurt, badly, but the journey was so beautifully written I had to keep listening.

George Walker is an old man, a transplanted Northerner in a town in Georgia, who lives with his wife Isabelle on the farm where he moved as a child with his parents. As the novel opens, he has just been told that his son died in the war and is wandering in the woods on his property. He meets two brothers–Prentiss and Landry–formerly enslaved and recently freed–and decides to hire them to help him put in a peanut farm and pay them fair wages. This creates a stir in the town because the recently returned Confederate soldiers are also struggling and no one else thinks that recently freed slaves should earn the same as white men.

Then the Walkers’ son, Caleb, returns–he didn’t die, after all, but merely disgraced himself on the battlefield. Caleb, a sensitive boy, has also been in love with his best friend, August, and they have been meeting in the woods since they were boys. August, however, has a streak of violence, and, as the son of a prominent businessman, has much to lose. It’s not hard to imagine how badly things could go wrong, and they do.

George is a good, but stubborn, man, and Caleb tries to learn from his example. I loved Isabelle, and her tenacity and gumption to continue what her husband started. There are so many civil war novels, but I’ve read only a few Reconstruction novels–this is a welcome addition, and very well done. The writing was beautiful and the pain palpable.

Unfortunately, there was some anti-fatness in the author’s description of a loathsome character. It was noticeable, and unnecessary in that this character could have still been described as terrible without being fat.

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