Friday, June 15, 2012

The Watery Part Of The World by Michael Parker

Michael Parker's hauntingly beautiful novel, The Watery Part Of The World, tells the story of one of North Carolina's barrier islands, Yaupon Island.  A tiny strip of sand between the ocean and the sound, it serves as the land's first break in the water; a tough land where survival demands the same toughness from its inhabitants.

The novel moves in time between the early 1800's to the present.  The earlier time is the story of the island's first inhabitants; shipwreck survivors, pirates, fishermen and slaves.  Among these is Theodosia Burr Alston, an aristocrat.  Daughter of the Vice-President, Aaron Burr and wife of Joseph Alston, the governor of South Carolina, she is brought to the island where her ship is wrecked by pirates.  She survives with the help of Whaley, a man who fights for her release by the outlaws and takes her as his wife.  She lives out her life in this new environment, unsure that her former privileged life had ever really existed.

Fast forward to the future.  After decades when the island thrived as a tight community, it has dwindled down to three people.  Theodosia and Maggie Whaley are the great-great-great-granddaughters of Theodosia and Whaley.  Woodrow Thornton is the descendant of the slave that Whaley bought and freed and who lived out his life on the island.  Woodrow takes care of the two white women, even at the expense of his own life.  Woodrow is married and he and Sarah have a large family.  Over the years, all drift off to the mainland, but Woodrow refuses to leave his responsibility to the Whaley women, even when Sarah dies. 

Parker has written a book that explores the ties that people have to specific landscapes and places; how the land can shape lives and the relationships that grow there.  It is a grand mixture of love and duty, of the relationship between black and white people in the South, of the toughness and will to survive, of an old culture whose vestiges remain.  This is not the 'beach' of tourists and gaudiness; it is the coast, stripped down to the mechanisms of survival and the love that allows people to survive there.  This book is highly recommended to all readers who want to understand one of the cultures of North Carolina.  Michael Parker is a professor in the MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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