The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris is an amazing debut novel by a 29-year-old man about racial and social tensions in the deep South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Harris’ prose is luscious; his characters are often odd, and complex. His explorations of their loves, animosities, challenges and misadventures are many-layered but always reveal their foundational humanity. The book’s relevance to hatreds that endure today is distressingly obvious, but, despite the principal characters’ travails, the desperation, wrong-doing and injustice, the ultimate message of hard work and love is one of hope.
The Love Songs of W. E. B. Dubois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers is a multi-generational family saga about a Black family whose roots predate the Civil War. The reader follows the family through the short-lived Reconstruction Era and into the 21st century. Jeffers reaches back to when white men arrived to “settle” this country and, by various nefarious means, drove the Creek Indians from their lands, soon buying slaves to help them work their land and become their property. Over the generations, there were dark-skinned family members, blond and light-skinned relatives, and also red-skinned. Among the many voices telling the story is a black feminist historian doing her doctoral thesis on the people of Georgia, many her family members. Throughout the narrative are sprinkled writings from noted Black scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois. This weaving technique reinforces how the saga of this one family represents the history of African-Americans. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? It’s an epic book, its nearly 800 pages revelatory and rich.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is as short a book as the previous one is long. It’s a real gem, set in an Irish town in 1985, with a message for today. The protagonist is a local coal merchant with a wife, five daughters, and mounting debt. Christmas week, while making a delivery to a local convent, he uncovers a teenage waif, locked in a shed, shivering, coatless and shoeless. His interaction with the Mother Superior raises many concerns about the treatment of unwed mothers and their babies, a dark history he’d prefer to ignore. Yet he learns truths about his own parentage. What he does, and at what risk, sends a message of bravery and empathy that touches the reader in a spiritual way. It particularly resonated for me because in 2019 my family and I visited the site of the notorious Bon Secours Mothers and Babys home in Tuam near Galway, Ireland. Between 1925 and 1961, nearly 1000 babies were buried there, in the middle of a respectable Irish neighborhood that was apparently oblivious to the horrors perpetrated there. It wasn’t till 2018 that the Irish government committed to excavating the site and compensating survivors. The book’s fictional handling of institutional cover-ups and the power of one person seeking the truth is chilling and gripping.
The Violin Conspiracy by Brandon Slocumb is about a Black classical violinist whose love of music and grandmother’s love propel him into a stellar career as a soloist. This, despite the fact that the rest of his family undermine his self-confidence and racism thwarts him at every turn. We root for Ray McMilliam as he drives himself to be accepted into the renowned Tchaikovsky Competition. Slocumb does a deep dive into the emotions that consume this gifted musician as he labors to achieve his goal and, at the same time, spins a mystery about the disappearance of the rare instrument left by his great grandfather. Slocumb is himself an accomplished musician though his musical virtuosity far exceeds his literary skills. Still, the unraveling of the mystery propels the narrative effectively enough to make it a worthwhile read.