Aaron Burr, our third vice president, would have felt nothing but respect for the Tiger Mom’s arduous parenting methods. At a time when most girls received little formal education, Burr devoted himself to training his precocious daughter, Theodosia, in Greek, Latin, French, music and mathematics. Like Amy Chua, he responded to his 11-year-old’s letters with criticism of her handwriting and her lax work habits. In a biography of this remarkable woman, Richard Cote claims that at 17, Theodosia “was without question the best educated woman in the United States. . . . Burr was grooming her to become a president, queen, or empress.”
Of course, Burr’s ambitious plans had a way of falling apart on him. Theo married well — the governor of South Carolina — and she remained a formidable advocate for her father during his trial for treason and his exile in Europe. But while sailing to New York in early 1813, Theo’s ship disappeared off the coast, and her body was never found.
In a lush feat of historical speculation, Michael Parker imagines that Theo survived a pirate attack off the coast of North Carolina and lived out a long, conflicted life on one of the barrier islands. “The Watery Part of the World” — that evocative title comes from “Moby-Dick” — is an emotionally acute tale about a brilliant woman of privilege who must suddenly use her wits to avoid dismemberment, rape and starvation.
In the opening pages, Theo screams her name and frightens the pirate captain into setting her free, not because he really believes she’s the empress of Mexico, but because he thinks she’s a mad woman “touched by God.” And so, in that moment of panicked raving, “Theodosia Burr Alston died, and the woman who spent her days scouring the beaches for the glint of a bottle, a sheet of parchment curled within, her father’s beautifully slanted hand visible beneath the sea-clouded glass, was less born than unsheathed.”
The fluid, impressionist scenes that follow show Theo abandoned on an island of rough runaways — white and black — where she finds little use for the refinements of aristocracy. Here, playing the piano is not as useful as sawing off chunks of dead whale blubber. “Wind blew away any pretense or affectation, any indulgence she’d failed to squelch.” In the tense story of her survival on “an island of second chances,” Parker keeps the terror of that pirate attack simmering by returning to it in greater, more horrific detail. But scarred as she is, Theo seems only more emboldened by her chance survival. She refuses to give up her quest to redeem her father’s reputation, even though she’s a lost woman living off beach garbage. It’s a crazy obsession that gives her the strength to survive — but also threatens to kill her.
Captivating as Theo’s story is, an even richer one is woven through it in alternating chapters. Jumping 160 years later, to 1970, Parker shows us the last three residents of this ravaged island. Two of them are sisters, Whaley and Maggie, distant descendants of Theodosia Burr; the third is Woodrow, a descendant of the freed slave who helped Theo all those years ago. They’ve lived their whole lives on this island, they’ve watched the storms and floods drive away all the other residents, and now they persist, cut off from the mainland, trapped in the amber of their own stubbornness and fear.
In the evenings, they sit on the steps in front of the church, and Whaley reads the prices from newspaper advertisements for things they’ve never heard of: “A Weed Eater? A microwave?” Their only regular contact with the outside world is a pair of anthropologists who come over once a year to record the sisters’ lost legends of this inhospitable place: drownings, shark attacks, hurricanes and the constant blood-sucking swarms of mosquitoes.
Parker, who teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, lays out a bewitching triangle of dependent relationships in this inclement Gothic tale: two very different white women and a black man locked together by compassion, obligation and addictive resentment. It’s all described in scenes that mingle the characters’ slightly antique diction with the cadence of the narrator’s own incantatory voice.
Back and forth the story flows, weirdly balanced between suspense and inevitability, washing over several tragic events that shaped their lives. “Scared to death of leaving her island,” poor Maggie can never escape the memory of a doomed romance, while her sister, Whaley, maintains a vigil of restraint and decorum that turns her mean and haughty, her provincialism transformed through the alchemy of righteousness into bitter superiority. Woodrow, meanwhile, can’t fathom “what made him stay on the island tending to his white women sisters,” despite all the condescension and neglect he’s suffered from them.
These disparate parts — pirates and aristocrats in one century; elderly ladies and their handyman in another — sound like a jarring mix, especially in a relatively brief novel. But Parker has managed to stir them together in a vivid tale about the tenacity of habit and the odd relationships that form in very small, difficult places.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
THE WATERY PART OF THE WORLD
By Michael Parker
Algonquin. 261 pp. $23.95