The narrator of this hypnotic novel is not a person but a place: Money, Miss. And novelist Bernice L. McFadden has created a voice that is ethereal, ancient and wise:
“I have been sunlight, snowdrifts, and sweet babies’ breath. But today, however, for you and for this story, I am Money. . . . I do not know for whom or what I was named. . . . I suspect, though, that my name was derived from a dream deferred, because as a town, I have been impoverished for most of my existence.”
Money, Miss., is, in real life, the place where 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered. But the real story, according to this narrator, begins “not with the tragedy of ’55 but long before that, with the arrival of the first problem, which came draped in crinoline and silk; carrying a pink parasol in one hand and a Bible in the other.”
In the opening pages of “Gathering of Waters,” this she-devil, a dead harlot known as Esther, takes up residence in Money. As the houses go up along the Tallahatchie River, her spirit takes over a young girl named Doll and forces her into a life of sin and depravity.
“Doll didn’t make a good wife or a good mother,” McFadden writes. “She did not cuddle, tend to runny noses, or wrap their necks with woolen scarves to protect them from the cold. . . . Her days were spent lounging in her slip, sipping sweet tea. . . . The only reason she even attended church service was because she enjoyed the arresting effect her presence had on the congregation.”
Doll is not only promiscuous but also a thief and a would-be killer. She seduces men, both black and white, scandalizes womenfolk, and has her way with the town and its residents. She is ubiquitous, much like the voice of Money, and she lives on, albeit in other forms, throughout the novel. Her spirit tortures three generations of the same family. She even possesses Till’s murderer.
The conceit of a vengeful spirit as a major player is used throughout literature (think of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”), but the strength of this novel is its depiction of the material world. Where its first half is brazen and erotic — Doll’s exploits are explicit — its second half accelerates, thanks to McFadden’s moving re-creation of historical events: the 1927 flood of the Mississippi, Till’s murder and even Hurricane Katrina.
Although parts of the grocery store where Till whistled are still standing, the town of Money is ultimately a metaphor of American decay and disaster:
“Vacant and ghostly, it had survived high winds and treacherous storms, holding onto a life that no longer wanted it. . . . It stood as a reminder of the then and the now; refusing to die . . . loudly insisting upon itself.”
Page teaches writing at George Washington University and is president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
GATHERING OF WATERS
By Bernice L. McFadden.
Akashic. 252 pp. Paperback, $15.95