The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, April 2011)
Reviewed by Martha F. Brenner
Michael Parker’s fifth novel evolved from a short story, “Off Island,” about the last inhabitants of a storm-battered, mosquito-infested island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The story, inspired by actual events, won major awards but to Parker felt cramped, covering too much time. He expanded the story, then combined it with speculative “histories” he’d written about other women on the coast: Theodosia Burr Alston, the well-educated daughter of Aaron Burr and wife of a governor of South Carolina, and Virginia Dare of the Lost Colony.
In lesser hands the combination might have seemed contrived, but Parker, a professor in UNC-Greensboro’s MFA program, knows how to make his characters’ lives resonate both in close quarters and over time, uniting them with common dilemmas, in language that flows seamlessly from period and regional diction to incantatory strokes.
The novel unfolds in the alternating views of four characters: Theodosia, presumed dead in a shipwreck off Nag’s Head in 1813 but spared by a pirate; Woodrow Thornton, an African American fisherman who is the descendant of Hezekiah, handyman to Theodosia and Old Whaley on Yaupon Island; and elderly sisters Maggie Whaley and Theo Whaley, great-great-great granddaughters of Theodosia Burr, who depend on Woodrow to survive in the present when Yaupon has dwindled to a ghost town without electricity or mail. Still, they’re content to stay—Woodrow enjoys his “sweet spread” of four acres in the colored section—all except Woodrow’s wife who wants to move to the mainland, closer to their grandbabies.
Without modern distractions, memories and Yaupon history are more intense. Theo Whaley, keeper of an antique portrait of Theodosia, relishes the annual visits of an anthropologist and his assistant, switching to an Old English brogue when they show up with their tape recorders. Woodrow avoids their questions “swole up with the answer, like a snake had swallowed a frog.” They want to know if the civil rights movement has reached the island. Woodrow still calls at the sisters’ back door.
Maggie, as indulgent as her sister is prim, remembers playing Virginia Dare in the dunes as a child and, in her forties, taking a young lover who’d come to Yaupon to learn to fish from Woodrow. He joins her for a swim. “‘I hear you’re wild,’ he said after a while. She heard a little fear in his voice, which made her like him—and what he said—better than if he’d come on all cocky. ‘You must have been talking to somebody tame,’ she said. He snickered. ‘That would be about everybody on this island.’”
When he asks Maggie to leave with him, she hesitates (Parker draws this out a bit long) for fear she’ll end up like Virginia Dare, drawn to the continent out of a greed for life, the lure of “Always Elsewhere.” She might roam forever.
Finally, in 2005, it’s Hurricane Wilma that provides the pivotal moment for Yaupon’s last islanders to show whether they can breach old resentments and racial barriers to care for each other.
On Parker’s island, history is personal. Tolerance, respect, security, and freedom aren’t bestowed; they’re hammered out in relationships. An aristocratic woman painfully recasts herself to survive on the coastal frontier with pirates, scavengers, and a freed slave, much as women had to adapt on the western frontier. Theodosia’s descendents, overly proud of their adaptation to Yaupon, can’t acknowledge their reliance on Woodrow. He, in turn, can’t break himself of the habit of helping, enduring Theo Whaley’s haughtiness and Maggie’s neediness with quiet indignation. Parker finally gives Woodrow the strength to confront them and the sisters live for years with regrets. It’s much too complex a change to capture on a tape recorder or in a history book. But Parker’s rich novel comes convincingly close.