The Sweetness of Water (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

by Nathan Harris

Hardcover, 2021




Little, Brown and Company (2021), Edition: 1st Edition, 368 pages


AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER / AN OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB PICK PRESIDENT OBAMA'S SUMMER 2021 READING LIST  Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize In the spirit of The Known World and The Underground Railroad, "a miraculous debut" (Washington Post)​ and "a towering achievement of imagination" (CBS This Morning)about the unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever--from "a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance" (Kirkus) A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice A July Indie Next Pick 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
After finishing this book, one can understand why it has been getting great reviews. From the first pages I was drawn into the story of George and Isabelle Walker, their son Caleb and the two freedmen brothers Prentiss and Landry.
The story takes place at the end of the civil war in rural Georgia.
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Freed slaves and returning confederate soldiers make for an uneasy calm in Ox Bow where the Walkers live on a nearby farm that George inherited from his father. The couple are open minded, intelligent and caring but have few friends in the town. When George decides to hire the brothers Prentiss and Landry to clear and cultivate several acres to grow peanuts, they are ostracized even more. Caleb returns from the war and continues his childhood friendship with August Wembly, the son of a local wealthy slave owning family. As the work on the farm progresses, Landry is violently murdered, the local sheriff is extremely racist and lazy and Prentiss ends up in jail. Caleb helps Prentiss escape and a manhunt ensues.
The reason the story is so compelling is because of the character development, the beautifully written prose, George and Isabelle’s quiet, loving relationship, the drama surrounding George and Isabelle versus their neighbours, the Caleb Augustus relationship, justice in a post war era, secondary characters including Ridley, goodness overcoming evil and a satisfactory ending.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I had hesitated reading this novel, passing it by. Then, I was seeing it mentioned over and over. I went back and claimed my ‘read now’ privilege, late to the party.

The writing is wonderful. It is set after the end of the Civil War, just before Federal troops arrive to reconstruct the South.
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Freedmen have fled the plantations and their previous owners can’t accept they no longer own them. In the town of Old Ox, sons are returning from the war, even a son who was believed to have died.

George Walker holds dear the memory of his childhood friend who was sold away to a man bent on misusing the girl. George has never amounted to much, preferring books to farming. At night, he walks the woods searching for the monster who haunted him since childhood.

One night, lost and exhausted, he is found by two freedmen who have been living in the woods. They help him home. He offers them a remarkable chance: help him plant a field of peanuts, and he will pay them a white man’s wages. Prentiss understands this mean the money for traveling North and a new life for him and his brother Landry, brutally deformed from when he was the scapegoat for his fellow slaves. George’s wife accepts the boys as well, forging a special bond with the silent Landry.

Unexpectedly, son Caleb comes home. He had gone to war to follow his boyhood friend and love, the son of a wealthy and powerful man. They have a secret life which is observed by Landry, resulting in tragedy. And from here, the story spirals and pulls the reader along.

The book drew me in and kept my interest. As it unfolded, I understood George’s motivation. I also felt the story was a wish fulfillment fantasy, with poetic justice dealt. And, I find myself thinking that George’s wife had the best parts and was the real hero of the story. George suffered horribly for his beliefs and acts. But it was Isabell who had the strength to fulfill his legacy. She allows herself to turn to women in town for insight and support in some of the most satisfyingly scenes.

There is violence in the book–no surprise because of its subject matter and time setting. But it is the acceptance and love and bravery that remains in my mind. The courage of people who follow their better angels.

Although Prentiss is a strong and brave character, I wish he had been given a bigger presence in the novel. Landry is short-lived in the story, his character almost more a symbol than real, but who is never forgotten by Isabell.

I can understand why this novel has garnered so much attention. It is an engrossing, emotional read. The white people are inspirational characters who risk everything for their convictions. We can trace the depicted racism to today’s headlines. I expect great things to come from this young author.

I received a free egalley from the publisher thought NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
The Civil War is over. The blacks have been freed. What is freedom though when they have no money, no place to live, no place to work unless they decide to stay and work for their former owners. The war is over, just words, words that don't change beliefs, prejudices nor the will tongive up what
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they had previously. Those confederates who have made is through alive are returning to this Georgia town and Union soldiers are there to try to keep things stable. Some of the blacks, like brothers Prentiss and Landry take to the woods, trying to trap food. This is where they meet George, a white man who hires them to farm his land. This is the situation, a situation that ignites a simmering town, and one with devastating consequences. A forbidden love between two confederate soldiers, a murder and a young man who lacked courage will find it in a meaningful way. It is a woman though who will find her strength and bring hope when least expected.

A stunning debut novel. Heartbreaking and heartfelt. Realistically illuminating the tensions at wars end, during reconstruction and with many wanting only to hold on to past beliefs. Memorable characters that I came to embrace. I felt so many emotions while I read this and drawing parallels to today, though circumstances are different, have we really come as far as we think we have? Possibly not, even all these years later.

ARC from Netgalley.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris, author; narrator William DeMeritt
This is such a powerfully written book that the reader is immediately intellectually and emotionally captivated by the author’s prose. The history is accurate, the characters are authentically presented and their lives so
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carefully depicted that most soon endear themselves to the reader, many even with their idiosyncrasies. Those that are evil are marked from the beginning.
George and Isabel Walker march to the beat of their own drummer. They often speak their minds to the consternation of other townspeople. Their son Caleb follows his best friend into the army to fight for the South in the Civil War. Caleb does not behave well on the field of war, while August is thrilled by the prospect of violence. August and Caleb have had a secret relationship that is ongoing when the novel begins. August’s dad is the most influential and powerful man in town, and he has made arrangements to ensure that neither his son nor Caleb will see violence. However, in the fog of war, all things are not predictable, and when danger descends upon the boys, Caleb acts poorly. When the South is defeated and August returns home, he tells George that Caleb is dead. When pressed, he tells him he was a coward who had run from the battle and from August whom he had sworn to stand by and protect.
George likes to wander alone in the forest, searching for a beast that he believes he saw as a child. On one of these excursions, he discovers two freedmen, two brothers, Landry and Prentiss. He asks for their help to get him home. He was tired and unable to find his way. As time passes, they help him to plant a peanut farm on his property. He pays them a fair wage, like any other man, and the townspeople are so furious, they turn on George. Isabel also treats the brothers well and when confronted by the womenfolk she socializes with, she alienates them with her defiance. Isabel and George are rarely demonstrative; however, she is fiercely loyal to George even when his ways are contrary to customary behavior. The town soon turns against both of them.
The brothers are former slaves of a neighbor, and that neighbor wants them back. He pays the freedmen a pittance for the privilege of working for him, while George pays a fair wage, the same as any other man would earn. The brothers are now free. They do not want to return to Mr. Morton or his Majesty’s Palace, the place with the beautiful fountain responsible for a grievous injury to Landry, that disfigured his face.
When Caleb, returns home, not dead after all, he too bears the scars of battle on his face. With few other options, he begins to work the fields with his father and the brothers. He believes that this is another of his father’s harebrained schemes, doomed to fail. When he hears of his friend August’s impending marriage, he is devastated. They still meet clandestinely, believing they are safe from prying eyes, but it is in an area that Landry has discovered and loves. He adores water and swims in the pond there. During their lovemaking, August realizes that Landry has witnessed their forbidden behavior. If he tells, they will be shamed. He would be ruined. What follows from this accidental moment of truth is disastrous. One thing leads to another as secret, selfish deals are made with the result that someone is murdered, Prentiss is wrongfully arrested and Caleb finds his backbone. An escape, further violence and a fire bring about the conclusion of the book.
Isabel is strong and soldiers on even after death and destruction face her. She is determined to fulfill the legacy she knows George desired; she will serve the cause of justice and right many wrongs. When the book ends, it feels like there is the possibility of a sequel. There are many unanswered questions. Will Isabel ever see her son again. Will George’s confidant mistress, Clementine, meet up with Prentiss again? Will Caleb find August again? What will happen if he does, disaster or capitulation? Like George, will Caleb and Prentiss conquer their demons? They are both haunted by their dreams and nightmares. I have simplified what is an amazingly well written commentary of the times so as not to give away pertinent parts of the novel. It deals with racism, homophobia, murder, relationships, loyalty, friendship, devotion, justice and its counterpart, injustice, strength and courage, among many other important human circumstances and dilemmas.
Women and freedmen are the more noble characters in this book, with the powerful men abusing their positions and making foolish, dangerous decisions. The book is recommended by both Obama and Oprah. I usually do not read those books since they generally have a political purpose and are used as propaganda. This book is different. It is a well written commentary on the period at the end of the Civil War exposing the bitterness, the hope, and the despair of the times for the newly freed and the newly vanquished. Those no longer in power flout the newly written laws. Those who won, also flout ethics and decency, using the need to achieve their goals as an excuse for breaking the rules they are mandated to uphold. Is that not the way it still is today? Will the brotherly relationship between Caleb and Prentiss, white and black brethren, be allowed to stand, or will the powerful continue to corrupt the justice system as we move into the future? Conditions today can provide those answers. Do we simply transfer power or equalize it?
This author has genuinely captured the emotions and thoughts of the characters as they deal with the consequences of the end of the Civil War. It will be hard to read it without taking a break and a breath because the hopelessness of some, coupled with the evil of others, bears witness to how hard it is for those who believe in freedom and justice to succeed.
The freedmen lack the tools to succeed, they are meek and obedient, still fearful, but overwhelmingly grateful for the breadcrumbs they are receiving instead of the loaf they deserve. All they want is hope and the possibility of fulfilling their own dreams, just like ordinary people. There will be times you will want to throw the book against a wall in protest against the abuse and injustice, but you will be compelled to read on. The righteous are punished for their idealism, often unrealistically, while the racists are rewarded by those with the power, to continue the unjust practices of years gone by. Foolish pranks, vengeance, arrogance, obstinacy, misunderstandings, shame, humiliation and hate create havoc for everyone.
The narrator used just the right amount of stress and emotion, but often gave the same voice and accent to a particular group of Confederacy supporters. Although Obama is credited with urging us to promote our better angels, an idea taken from Lincoln’s speech in which he says “The mystic chords of memory will swell when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”, he has been largely responsible for dividing us. Less emphasis on identity politics and more on unity would better serve an angel's purpose. In addition, the effort to frame our history in a better way, does a disservice to actual history. Accuracy and truth should be first and foremost, not a political agenda.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
This author is 29? Wow! I'm astonished. A novel of hope, redemption, family, loss. A book that takes you on a journey. The good v. evil is played out perfectly, but there are surprises. Sometimes evil wins and sometimes good. I loved the characters and will be reading this author again!
LibraryThing member booklove2
I have never really had an interest in 'Gone with the Wind', movie or book, just because I figured it probably wasn't really saying what needed to be said for what should have really been the topics of the book. Or the book I wanted to read.... I would imagine it's about a Confederate damsel and
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no. I'm not reading that. So if a Black writer wants to subvert 'Gone with the Wind', I'm all for it, but I probably won't get it anyway if I am not familiar with the source material. But I love the concept of flipping 'Gone With the Wind' anyway, whether that is what Harris intended or not! (anyone have a better grasp on that and read both books? Please explain away.) Here we have a family in the south of the US, sympathetic to newly freed slaves right after General Robert E. Lee has surrendered. The chapters switch perspectives between many of these characters, which is wonderful: mainly two newly freed slave brothers, a man and wife living in a town that very much supports slavery with a son fighting in the war. I do like that the book subverts expectations, and that literature is able to do that these days, but I also wanted the book to dig deeper in all aspects here. The plot seems a bit ambling and surface level to me. I had just read some excellent James Baldwin before this one, so I'm sure that's a tough act to follow. But I'd certainly rather read this book and books like this rather than 'Gone With the Wind'.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
August 19
Finished The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris. Amazing that this 29 year old would write an historical piece about freed slaves in Georgia just after the civil war. A Booker Prize nominee, an Obama pick, and an Oprah pick should seal the success of his debut novel. The story evolved
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nicely, exploring the life of George and Isabel, secluded on a piece of farmland outside of the town called Old Ox. When George goes out meandering in his woods, looking to postpone telling his wife some bad news, he comes upon two brothers camping not far from the neighbor's farm where they both toiled as slaves until the Union troops came to inform them of their freedom. Prentice and Landry, characters similar to a Steinbeck novel, wind up staying on George's farm and he pays them a fair wage to help use the land to grow peanuts. Other plot lines include George's son Caleb and his war experience, his relationship with a popular rich friend named August, and then the story of Isabel and how she manages to cope with the life that plays out in these well written pages.
The story offers some insight to the time period shortly after the war. How the slave holders were reluctant to let go of the old ways and how difficult it was for the slaves to suddenly be on their own, having only known oppression and servitude and the whip.

His face was expressionless. He’d never been handsome, for the balancing involved in the physiognomy of beauty had escaped him. His nose was large, his eyes small, and his hair fell in a ring like a well-placed laurel wreath; his belly had the taut rotundity of a pregnant woman and was always safely stowed away in the midsection between his suspenders.

If ever he lacked warmth—which he often did—his unflagging ability to bring her back to port when she strayed into choppy waters was an asset that made up for it many times over. No one was more reliable, and if that was not the ultimate act of compassion, she did not know what was.

In fact, in his mind’s eye he conjured his life as a languishing oak, throttled by the elements, with branches so tortured that they sprouted at impossible angles, its bark flecked with yellow fungus and its leaves burnt through by the sun. The decline only furthered as the years passed, but George felt the tree had been born rotten, as if he knew he had begun on poor ground, with an unsteady and shifting sense of morality, and that there would be no improvement.

They called the man the freight train, for when the words gained steam he kept his engine stoked with so much liquor and tobacco he could entertain late into the night without a stop to rest.

“You know,” George said, “when I look in the mirror in the morning I see a miserable old bastard looking back at me. Yet when I see you, I take great comfort, knowing how much progress I have left to make on that same path.”

Many a thinker had devoted himself to questions of aging and death, yet the thinkers died at the same rate as the idiots, and so George had grown quite content with the idea of ignoring the process altogether.

There was no means sufficient to explain the pleasure: how fantastic it had been to gather the courage, to step forward, to give in for the first time ever to a forbidden act of protest. The joy of standing before Wade as if he had power—just for that one second—was ineffable. “It felt good,” he told George. “That’s all I know.”
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LibraryThing member mayonine
Two of the worst stereotypes gay men face is either being a sniveling coward or a demented psychopath. Cheers to Mr. Harris for including them both in the same novel.
LibraryThing member bookczuk
Extraordinary book recommended by Barack Obama.
LibraryThing member EllenH
Nathan Harris does a great job capturing the personalities and time period after the Civil War in the south. This book is rich, interesting and different, and I really, really liked it.
LibraryThing member bereanna
I expected more because of the hype. It was a good story, but too descriptive throughout for my tastes. George and Isabelle live separate lives in a quiet house even after their “dead” son back from the Civil War. George befriends two former black slaves of his neighbor whose goal is to head
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north eventually.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
The writng in this book was beautiful. There was so much lovely alliteration, spot on descriptions, and metaphorical images. The characters were human beings, many of whom altered their stances, very true to life. I also learned what life was like for both those freed after the Civil War and those
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who were ruled by people with little understnading of those they were supposed to be helping in their adjustment. This would be a good book to read more than once, as I did not find it always clear, but I am very glad I read it.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
The town of Old Ox, Georgia is reckoning with the aftermath of the American Civil War. Landowners are forced to manage without enslaved labor. Formerly enslaved people are cautiously trying to forge a new, independent life. And George Walker and his wife, Isabelle, are reeling from news that their
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son Caleb was killed in action. When George, who did not own slaves, comes across two brothers in the woods, he offers them shelter and paid work on his farm, a move that angers many townspeople. Prentiss and Landry become surrogates for the boy he’s lost until Caleb reappears, injured but very much alive.

The family begins rebuilding their lives, but they find themselves socially ostracized because of their employment practices. And they are further tested when there’s a murder, and Caleb is completely betrayed by his closest friend. These two incidents set off a cascade of consequences that push the family to their limits.

I enjoyed most of this book, particularly the character development, the exploration of racism during this period in history, and a well-crafted plot. The end fell a bit short of my expectations, as debut author Nathan Harris seemed determined to tie in a few themes that were not fully developed earlier in the novel. But for the most part, this was an interesting story, well told.
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