Book 17: Gathering of Waters–Bernice McFadden

This may be the first book on my list I really didn’t enjoy, which is unfortunate because I was truly looking forward to it. The book cover is a set up; it is not at all an accurate reflection of what the story is about.

Gathering of Waters is a deeply engrossing tale narrated by the town of Money, Mississippi–a site both significant and infamous in our collective story as a nation. Money is personified in this haunting novel, which chronicles its troubled history following the arrival of the Hilson and Bryant families.

Tass Hilson and Emmett Till were young and in love when Emmett was brutally murdered in 1955. Anxious to escape the town, Tass marries Maximillian May and relocates to Detroit.

Forty years later, after the death of her husband, Tass returns to Money and fantasy takes flesh when Emmett Till’s spirit is finally rleased from the dank, dark waters of the Tallahatchie River. The two lovers are reunited, bringing the story to an enchanting and profound conclusion.

Here’s the thing, the blurb makes it seem like the book is going to be about this mystical/fantasy relationship between Emmett Till’s ghost and the girl he loved before he was killed. A bit creepy, but I can get on board with the fantasy relationship where Emmett gets to live on in spirit. That’s not what this book was really about. It was really the story of an evil spirit, Esther the whore, that went around possessing people and things, and who ended up in the same Mississippi town that Emmet Till just happened to visit. Emmett doesn’t even appear in the novel until page 156, and his storyline only lasts until page 192 where it abruptly moves on to the next storyline of Tass getting married. The book cover makes it seem like Emmett’s murder and the lovers being reunited later on is the central thread of the story. It definitely didn’t match my expectations, which is a large part of my disappointment with the book.

The rest of my disappointment was stylistic; I really wasn’t a fan of the writing.The novel was told from the perspective of the town narrating what was happening in their confines over the decades. A literary mechanism like that could be a really interesting perspective of what the more permanent things in our environment witness of humanity. Or it could be really corny. This novel read somewhere in between the two poles, but closer to the side of corny. I don’t know, it just felt like something I’d read from a high school student’s short story. There were also some weird errors: a character’s name changed from one chapter to the next. I thought I had misread or misremembered, but I went back and looked a few chapters earlier, and my suspicions were confirmed.

Finally, I had some serious reservations about the spirit of this “whore” being the cause of Emmett Till’s death. For whatever reason I envisioned this woman being Black, which pissed me off, but maybe that says more about my own internalized racism because I don’t think McFadden ever mentioned Esther’s race. Even if she wasn’t Black, the narrative of a woman being the root of all these evil events just reinforces an ideology that I can’t get down with. Especially in light of her possessing Emmett’s murderer. It stripped the responsibility from the racists who willfully perpetrated the act: ‘It wasn’t me, the devil made me do it.’ This plot device of the she-devil inhabiting different bodies made for a corny and abrupt ending too. I don’t want to spoil it if you do decide to read it, but it made for a hefty eye roll.

I think it was an interesting concept, I liked the idea of getting told the story from the perspective of the surroundings, of having a longitudinal plot, getting to see what came before and what happened after, but overall it just didn’t come through for me. I would be interested in reading a different book by McFadden; she’s won a number of literary awards and her other works may be more appealing to me. But as for this one, oh well, guess I can’t love all the books on my list.