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In the spirit of The Known World and The Underground Railroad, “a miraculous debut” (Washington Post) and “a towering achievement of imagination” (CBS This Morning)about the unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever—from “a storyteller with bountiful insight and assurance” (Kirkus)
A July Indie Next Pick
In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.
Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.
With candor and sympathy, debut novelist Nathan Harris creates an unforgettable cast of characters, depicting Georgia in the violent crucible of Reconstruction. Equal parts beauty and terror, as gripping as it is moving, The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing circumstances.
About the Author
Nathan Harris holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. He is a recipient of the University of Oregon's Kidd Prize and was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize. He lives in Austin, Texas. The Sweetness of Water is his first novel.
“Harris’s debut novel is remarkable; that he’s only 29 is miraculous. His prose is burnished with an antique patina that evokes the mid-19th century. And he explores this liminal moment in our history with extraordinary sensitivity to the range of responses from Black and White Americans contending with a revolutionary ideal of personhood... All of this is drawn with gorgeous fidelity to these cautious characters, struggling to remake the world, or at least this little patch of it... Harris stacks the timbers of this plot deliberately, and the moment a spark alights, the whole structure begins to burn hot... What’s most impressive about Harris’s novel is how he attends to the lives of these peculiar people while capturing the tectonic tensions at play in the American South.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post
“Beautiful... An instant classic... This book is profound.”—Jenna Bush Hager, Wall Street Journal
“As I read this masterful novel I kept thinking—this young 29-year-old is a first-time author, so how did he do this?... As the best writers can do, Nathan takes us back in time, and helps us to feel we are right there with Prentiss and Landry as they get their first taste of freedom. I rooted for them, and feared for them too."—Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Daily
“An extraordinary debut novel . . . Harris expertly introduces explosive plot twists across parallel threads . . . There’s an elegant interplay among all facets of the narrative that at once raises the stakes for all the characters while gesturing toward a larger world outside Old Ox. The overall effect is a dazzling world-building that makes the relatively compact novel feel much larger . . . Harris manages to weave emotion into the smallest of moments . . . The novel asks us to consider white-supremacist ideology not as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, but as an uncomfortable truth and feature of the entire American endeavor, especially of the criminal justice system. Old Ox is in Georgia, but it is also everywhere today. Harris writes with the confidence and command of a seasoned master of the craft. And, of course, the magic of his sentences is in the details—everything is historically accurate and painstakingly researched, whether he’s describing the reprieve of a fresh tick mattress or the complexity of growing peanuts in Georgia soil. This novel is simply the best I have read in years.”—Daniel Peña, Texas Monthly
“Harris’s characters are multifaceted, absorbing, and extraordinarily well-developed. They transport the reader into a difficult time of complex social problems, with situations that elevate the tension with each turn of the page. As more layers of the story unfold, Harris’s captivating and shrewd prose dissects individual motives, revealing vulnerabilities and thereby exposing the characters for who they are, and what they have become. Harris creates a fascinating and compelling look into the Civil War era by taking a well-known aspect of the period, the Emancipation Proclamation, and candidly depicting the confusion in the aftermath of the new law... In a tumultuous time of instability and uncertainty, Nathan Harris brings to the foreground humanity’s aptitude for survival, compassion, and goodwill even in their darkest hour.”—Donna Everhart, New York Journal of Books
“Richly imagined… A deeply compassionate debut.”—Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle
“Harris’s lucid prose and vivid characterization illustrate a community at war with itself, poisoned by pride and mired in racial and sexual bigotry. Prentiss and Landry are technically free, but they remain trapped by a lifetime of blighted hopes and broken promises. Reconstruction will prove to be yet another lie. Harris’s first novel is an aching chronicle of loss, cruelty, and love in the wake of community devastation.”—Lesley Williams, Booklist (starred review)
“Deeply moving… Harris’s ambitious debut explores the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation in rural Georgia… Harris peoples the small community with well-developed characters… [He] writes in intelligent, down-to-earth prose and shows a keen understanding of his characters.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A timeless portrait of warring factions seeking peace… There is a shared longing at the heart of Harris’ novel… Harris draws readers into this sense of longing by exploring silences… Celebrating all manner of relationships that combat hate, this novel is a hopeful glimpse into the long legacy of American racial and civil tensions.”—Mari Carlson, Bookpage (starred review)
“What a gifted, assured writer Nathan Harris is. He does what all novelists are supposed to do—give birth to vivid characters, people worth caring about, and then get out of their way. The result is better than any debut novel has a right to be. With The Sweetness of Water, Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.”—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Bridge of Sighs