The Watery Part of the World
By Michael Parker
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill April 2011
From the library
The Watery Part of the World is a fictional intersection of two real life events. In 1813, Aaron Burr’s beloved daughter Theodosia is lost at sea. In the 1960s, Yaupon Island has been reduced to just three residents who are a bit of a curiosity – sisters Maggie and Miss Whaley, who are white, and Woodrow, a black widower. Michael Parker imagines what might have happened if Theodosia had landed on the island and was the ancestor of the Whaley sisters.
In this novel, Mr. Parker attempts to juggle two timelines. One is more successful than the other. In the early 1800s, we meet Theodosia or Theo. She is sailing to be reunited with her father and bring him documents that will clear his name. En route, the ship is seized by pirates under the command of the brutal and enigmatic Daniel. He spares Theo’s life because he believes her to be touched by God, as she speaks to a portrait as if it were a person. The whole construct of this storyline is at times hard to understand and always difficult to believe. Daniel allows Theo to live on the land outside of his home, knowing full well that she is alive. He also holds mysterious sway over her savior, a man by the name of Whaley. While I loved the relationship between Theo and Whaley and thought that Parker did an excellent job showing the transition from a girl determined to return to her father to a woman who accepted her new circumstances, I never quite bought the idea of Daniel as the mysterious and cruel controller of their lives. I never understood the rationale behind it.
More than hundred years later, the reader discovers that there are only three people remaining on the island that was once Theo’s home. Two of her descendants, Maggie and Miss Whaley, remain on the island in an attempt to preserve the history of their home and of their great-great-grandmother Theo. Miss Whaley delights in regaling the anthropologist who come to visit with tales of long ago. Maggie yearns for something more, but doesn’t have the courage to leave the land she has always called home. Their only companion is a man named Woodrow, who cares for the women despite their failure to save his wife’s life. Their relationship is intricate and beautiful – just when you think you have determined which character is depending on the other, your perception is changed by another moment from the past. This section builds on Theo’s history and the way that white women and black men in the 1800s and 1900s could relate to each other and the ways in which their lives could not touch.
Mr. Parker is a lovely writer, and his imagery of the island and the surrounding ocean permeates the novel to the point where it seems like its own character. “This island was not words. It wasn’t feelings, for Pete’s sake. It was sand, wind, sea oat, wax myrtle, water bush, red cedar, live oak, yaupon. It was peat, marl, loam and slough, hammock, marsh, and dune after dune. It was sound on one side and sea on the other and a ribbon of sand between, running right out toward the Gulf Stream, the crust of a continent defying the overwash and daring a wind to take it away.”
The Watery Part of the World is an ambitious attempt by a skilled author. The greatest strength of this slim novel is that Parker does not hit you over the head with his point. Instead, he takes a deep, but subtle look at the ways in which men and women of different races and backgrounds need each other and hide from each other regardless of the time in which they are living.