The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oprah’s latest Book Club pick, ‘The Sweetness of Water,’ is a miraculous debut

The Sweetness of Water” — the latest Oprah Book Club pick — unfolds in Georgia during the murky twilight of the Civil War. Union soldiers have marched through the state telling enslaved Black people they’re free, but that freedom exists in the ruins of a White society seething with resentment, determined to maintain its superiority.

That this powerful book is Nathan Harris’s debut novel is remarkable; that he’s only 29 is miraculous. His prose is burnished with an antique patina that evokes the mid-19th century. And he explores this liminal moment in our history with extraordinary sensitivity to the range of responses from Black and White Americans contending with a revolutionary ideal of personhood.

The story opens in a fugue of mourning. George Walker is wandering through his 200-acre wood. A Northerner brought to Georgia decades ago as a child, George never developed any sympathy for the Southern cause. But the end of the War Between the States brings him no joy. He’s just received word that his only son, who enlisted with the Confederacy, was killed in the final weeks of battle. He reportedly died in a moment of panic, running “toward the Union line as though they might pity his screams of terror, might see him through the glut of smoke and grant his surrender and not shoot him down with the rest.”

Now the father’s shame is compounded. “Who was the bigger coward,” he wonders, “the boy for dying without courage, or George for not being able to tell the boy’s own mother that she would never see her son again?”

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Just as George realizes that he’s somehow become lost on his own property, he runs into two Black men, Landry and Prentiss, brothers born and raised on a neighbor’s farm. Far from town, it’s a tense encounter, neither side knowing what to expect from the other. The Black men have been so recently freed that they still reflexively identify themselves by their owner. “We’re Mr. Morton’s,” one of them announces. “Well, was.”

“You could go anywhere,” George tells the brothers.

“We plan to,” Prentiss says. “It’s just nice.”

“What’s that?”

“To be left alone for a time,” Prentiss says. “Ain’t that why you’re out here yourself, Mr. Walker?”

In this strange collision of bereavement and emancipation, an unlikely friendship germinates. George is desperate to distract himself from the death of his only child. After years of leisurely isolation, he craves a project, something to leave behind as evidence of his own existence. And so, in that moment, he conceives a bold plan to begin peanut farming, and he will hire these two freedmen to work for him.

For their part, the brothers have no intention of remaining in this place stained with bondage. “Their lives could now begin,” the narrator says, “and it was time to craft them in whatever way they saw fit.” But Harris gives a visceral sense of the complications of liberty. Landry and Prentiss have never traveled outside the boundaries of Mr. Morton’s farm. They have no map, no food, no friends and no expectation of employment in a ruined state already awash with idled Confederate soldiers. What’s worse, Mr. Morton routinely beat Landry so brutally that the young man is now mute. He’s a striking example of Harris’s ability to suggest the vast canvas of trauma with just the careful depiction of one man’s ordeal.

Caught in the extremity of their sudden freedom, Prentiss and Landry reluctantly agree to work for George on his quixotic peanut farm. All of this is drawn with gorgeous fidelity to these cautious characters, struggling to remake the world, or at least this little patch of it. Prentiss is determined that he and his brother shall not fall victim to the old model of exploitation. And George imagines that he can, through the force of his own idealism, create an oasis based on the principle of a living wage offered without regard to the color of a man’s skin.

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If George is naive, there’s nothing naive about Nathan Harris or the story he tells. Much of the early section of the novel explores the way the loss of their son drives George and his wife into separate silos of grief. The labor that offers solace to George is not available to his wife, who must simply endure the pain alone.

But “The Sweetness of Water” quickly accelerates beyond the Walkers’ lamentation or Prentiss’s satisfaction with his new employer. And soon Harris weaves in another dramatic subplot involving the clandestine affection of two former Confederate soldiers, who have no context in which to understand their desires nor any opportunity to express their love openly.

Harris stacks the timbers of this plot deliberately, and the moment a spark alights, the whole structure begins to burn hot. Old secrets and passions reassert themselves, and George learns that his determination to treat a pair of Black men with respect is an affront that his neighbors cannot abide.

What’s most impressive about Harris’s novel is how he attends to the lives of these peculiar people while capturing the tectonic tensions at play in the American South. In scenes set in town, we see that even as Union military administrators try to assert their control, defeated White Georgians are already conspiring to reconstruct the old racial hierarchy through a system of slave wages and vigilante justice. Then, as now, horrible compromises are tolerated in the name of a peace that is no peace for some.

As an author, Harris eventually exercises a kind of fiery Old Testament justice, which is at once satisfying and terrifying. But if this is an era — and a genre — that has no room for encouragement, “The Sweetness of Water” is finally willing to carve out a little oasis of hope.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

The Sweetness of Water

By Nathan Harris

Little, Brown. 363 pp. $28

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