Back across to the island

The Watery Part of the World
Michael Parker

“Whaley said to her sister, ‘Maggie, I’m sorry all these years I never acted like I love you but I do,’ and her sister didn’t say anything just made that hush sound with the s’s streaming out of her mouth like water lapping the beach at night … that noise Maggie made with her mouth took her back across to the island.” 

It was in some English Education grad class that I watched an episode of PBS’s Story of English and was enchanted by the segment of the documentary that featured an old woman speaking Gullah. (If you’ve never heard the dialect, here’s a clip of a Gullah storyteller) I found the language lyrical, rhythmic, and if I didn’t always understand the speaker, I was content to listen, awash in the music. And while that’s a pretty circuitous introduction to the novel, the echo of Gullah rang in my ears (accurate or not) as I read Michael Parker’s Watery Part of the World.

Set on an island in the Outer Banks, the novel straddles two centuries. We have the story of Theodosia Burr whose ship is run aground by pirates, many of the passengers raped, captured, and killed. Theodosia, adult daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, is spared only because her crazed ranting about her famous father and her fierce grip on her childhood portrait, led the pirate leader Daniels to think “her touched by God”. Imprisoned by Daniels who moved her from family to family on the island, Theo eventually is befriended by Whaley, a man below her station with a mysterious past.

One hundred and fifty years later, Parker brings us to the island’s last three residents–sisters Maggie and Whaley, Theodosia’s descendants, and Woodrow Thornton, a black man upon whom the sisters rely for survival. We learn only some of their history; the novel’s focus is more on how its hold on the three is as powerful and relentless as the moon’s pull on the tide.Two “Tape Recorders” appear occasionally, academics determined (oh so foolishly!) to understand island culture. It is probably these characters that brought to mind The Story of English and Gullah.

I found Theodosia’s story more compelling: the privileged wife of a govenor (said to be the country’s most educated woman) given up for lost but in reality living the hard scrabble life of an island woman. Parker took what we know about Theo’s life before her disappearance and molded the woman she became by necessity. I am curious enough about her that I plan to read more–always a good sign that a novelist has done a competent job of blending fact with fiction.

The last two pages–beautifully poetic–I’ve already re-read; they are my type of ending in more ways than one.

Next up: So I guess it’s pretty evident that my ‘next up’ last time wasn’t really Elizabeth I. Or it was … but I put it aside for now. Summer is a reading frenzy for me–I’m like a shark with a string of chub. Don’t get me wrong–Liz is a good historical novel. But it’s long. And plodding. I’ve read 188 pages and Elizabeth went from age 50-something to 60. I just can’t stay with it right now and might save it for those endless winter nights. So Watery Part turned into my next up. My next next up is A Red Herring Without Mustard–yes, another Flavia DeLuce delight! (I’ve already one chapter behind me and I’m determined to adopt the girl somehow. How I love her little sleuthing self.)

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