Brothers Prentiss and Landry struggle for survival in the forest outside the Majesty’s Palace plantation in Old Ox, Ga., after being freed from slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, when they accidentally run into a peanut farmer named George Walker.
Walker and his wife Isabelle, who are White, take the brothers in. The couple worries that their son Caleb, who fought in the Civil War, may be dead. But he eventually returns home with a secret he wants to keep hidden.
This sets the stage for a work of historical fictional by author Nathan Harris in his novel, “The Sweetness of Water.”
Women in the Monroe Senior Center’s Book Club read about the drama unfolding amid the Reconstruction period in the South.
On Wednesday afternoon, 10 women in the club formed a circle of chairs to discuss their latest book.
“How many of you got my emails and watched the video?” Leslie Gosselin, the organizer of the event, asked. “I have a five minute video of the author, Nathan Harris, being interviewed by Oprah.”
She placed her cellphone on the rug and book club members looked down as the video played. Oprah Winfrey marveled at how a man of only 29-years of age wrote an historical work of fiction.
“The goodness in all the characters was ever present, so you always had hope.” — Kathleen Pendagast
Harris said today there are issues of race and class. “I want this book to show we can come together,” he said. “We just have to get over our differences.”
Gosselin said she thought “The Sweetness of Water” would be a good book for Black History Month. The next book the group will read is “The Personal Librarian”, a New York Times best seller written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.
To participate in the book club, you must be a patron of the Monroe Senior Center, where you can sign up and get a copy of the next book, rather than buying your own. The club meets at the center at 2 p.m. on the second Wednesday of the month from September to June.
Though only women participated in the last book discussion, Gosselin said men are also welcome to join and have been at previous events.
“People have strong opinions,” Vivian Capoccitti said of the discussions.
“I like the give and take of it,” Kathleen Pendagast added. “I like to hear other people’s ideas and I like the people. I like Leslie. She remains positive under difficult circumstances.”
Gosselin said she first became involved in the book club approximately 16 years ago, after former Edith Wheeler Memorial Library Director Robert Gallucci, who is now Robert Simon, started the group when the senior center was housed at Masuk High School.
An in-depth analysis
Wednesday’s book discussion included a in-depth analysis of characters in “The Sweetness of Water” and their motivations.
Gosselin talked about the unique time period in American history, asking her fellow club members to imagine themselves being enslaved on a big plantation, where they had lived their whole lives, then suddenly being freed and not knowing what to do.
She noted how plantation owners’ lives were also dramatically changed. “They didn’t know how to run the farms and survive,” she said.
Several of the women said they didn’t know Northern soldiers occupied the South to keep order after the war during the period of Reconstruction.
“I don’t think we learned a lot about what happened after the war,” Eileen Carra said of history taught in schools.
Gosselin asked what members thought the title, “The Sweetness of Water”, means.
“It was the fountain that Landry was taken with,” Nancy Smith said.
“It had cherubs on it,” Mary Warren said.
“Like in Rome,” Jeanette Margiotta added.
Gosselin reminded everyone of a meeting at the pond. “Which is another water scene,” Kathleen Pendagast said.
Warren said everything significant happened around water.
“The fountain was the symbol of bondage and injustice: ‘We have power over you,’” Gosselin explained.
“Water is also cleansing,” Helma Chartier said.
“Cleansing the soul, the body and mind — and the freedom,” Gosselin agreed.
Gosselin asked, “is there hope in this book?”
“Oh definitely, the goodness in all the characters was ever present, so you always had hope,” Pendagast replied. “George and Prentiss were my favorites. George was an unusual man in his time and Prentiss’ love for his brother …”
“He tried to give us a story that things can get better,” Gosselin said of the author. “You have to remember what happened before, but also move forward.”
The women went around the circle sharing their favorite characters.
“Isabel and Mildred, I liked them,” Warren said. “They were strong women for the time.”
Gosselin said she liked George, because he was an “anomaly”. “People didn’t act like George. He had them stay in the barn and paid them,” she said of his treatment of the former slaves, who he paid at the same rate as White farm workers.
“I feel like at the end of the book, I wanted a little closure,” Margiotta said.
Gosselin praised Harris for his writing style, saying he put words together beautifully. Others thought the buildup of the story was slow.
“I put it back down. It was drudgery for the setup,” Carra said. “Then it picked up in the second half.”
She said the story built momentum when other characters, like Clementine the hooker, were introduced.
“Setting up the characters, to me, was torture,” Carra said. “He’s a beautiful writer if you have the time.”
“I liked it the whole time,” Warren said. “I was immersed in it.”
“I like to read, then put a book down for three days while reading another one,” Carra explained. “This one, you have to read through.”
Suzan Margulis said she found it easier to read the book on her Kindle, which has a light and a font size that can be changed. “I can’t follow audio books,” she said of another medium. “I get busy.”
“This will probably come out in a movie,” Gosselin said of “The Sweetness of Water”.
“I’d see it,” Pendagast said enthusiastically.
When talking about the next book on their list, Chartier recommended another novel, “The Stone Maidens”, which is a best seller on Amazon. When the book wasn’t selling well, the daughter of the author, Lloyd Devereux Richards, promoted it on TikTok.
Chartier said she learned about the book from a segment on “CBS This Morning”.
“I ordered it. I love it,” she said. “That’s why I was late. I couldn’t stop reading the book!”
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