When I read a description of the book The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, I was intrigued by its premise and placed a hold on a digital copy from my library once I found out that one was available. Its story is set at the end of the US Civil War and the beginnings of the Reconstruction era when the north followed through on its pledge to do the work to end slavery in the southern states. To be honest, I find stories from this era to be difficult to read because of how terribly slaves were treated. It is unfathomable that the white people of that time believed so completely in their superiority that they treated other human beings so horribly. This era is one of the most shameful in human history. Nonetheless, I read it anyway because I cannot turn down the power and the sense of possibility of what a good book can give.
This harrowing tale centers around a small white family living on a large swath of inherited land that borders several plantations that are worked by slaves. Two black brothers, who were slaves owned by a local and particularly cruel land baron, left one of these neighboring plantations as freed men. Their lives become intricately intertwined with this small white family, for better or worse. Embedded within all of the ensuing complexity is an illicit romantic affair between two white men and former soldiers who secretly meet deep in the woods to spend time together.
This is a good book. Its steady pacing and complex characters drive its plot to places that are unsettling to experience but necessary. It offers a case study in the ways by which racism can decimate any sense of human decency and compassion and a primer on what it means to care for others in times of immense struggle and sorrow.
Is it a lighthearted, easy, and fun book to read?
But it is a book that has a lot of depth and layers, in which actions and consequences are at odds with what is just and fair. It takes the bonds between parent and child, friend and friend, brother and brother, lover and lover, individual and community, and husband and wife into situations in which they become strained and gutted. Up until the final page, we find out which bonds survive.
This is one of those books I hope everyone gets a chance to read for the important example it gives of how racism breeds nothing but destruction. There are plenty of fun and lighthearted books available to read, but it takes a book like this one to see a much bigger and broader view of the world—a panoramic vista that shows us what we need to see.