Following the end of the Civil War, newly freed Black people are left to fend for themselves among resentful white people who do not want to hire them. When George Walker, a former northerner in Georgia, meets Prentiss and Landry in his woods, he offers them lodging and jobs helping him cultivate new peanut fields. Landry is a gentle giant, injured and silent after years of torment at the hands of his enslavers. He finds respite in the beauty of nature and water. Prentiss is wary and protective of his brother, and the two plan to leave the South when they have the means.
Neighbors resent George and his wife, Isabelle's, fair treatment of the men, but they both appreciate the men's presence. The couple struggle with distance in their marriage and with their son Caleb, a disgraced soldier returned from war and tormented by his longing for his friend August. The growing resentments reach a tipping point when Caleb and August are discovered, resulting in a tragic murder and cascading acts of violence that could destroy the town.
Harris's debut is a fantastic, heartbreaking exploration of the tumultuous period of Reconstruction. Every main character is so well-developed, complex and imperfect, each courageous in their own way. This was a book club read and I know there will be a lot to discuss; I was riveted.
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In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.
Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.
With candor and sympathy, debut novelist Nathan Harris creates an unforgettable cast of characters, depicting Georgia in the violent crucible of Reconstruction. Equal parts beauty and terror, as gripping as it is moving, The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing circumstances.