A few years ago I laughed and cried over Nancy E. Turner’s debut novel, These Is My Words, an extraordinary fictional diary about the physical and emotional journey of a determined pioneer woman. So when I saw that Turner had just released a new book, I took the unusual step of buying the hardcover at full price, without reading a single review or even a book description. I didn’t regret my impulsive decision. The Water and the Blood is another keeper from an author who can’t write fast enough to suit me, a dazzlingly insightful portrait of another remarkable heroine.
We set fire to the Nigra church after the junior-senior Halloween costume party. Hardly an auspicious opening sentence for a heroine, wouldn’t you say? But Philadelphia Summers, known only as “Frosty,” isn’t a bad person, just one who has never fit in anywhere. The middle daughter in a poor Southern Baptist family, Frosty sees her mother save her meager affection for her older sister Deely, a polio victim. The younger sister, Opalrae, survives on benign neglect. But Frosty gets the full force of her mother’s bitterness, enduring beatings and tirades about her unworthiness. For a while, Frosty risks the community’s wrath by slipping away from her Baptist congregation to visit the Negro church, where she interprets the sign “All Welcome” as an open invitation. But a betrayal leads Frosty to realize she doesn’t belong there either. In spite and in despair, she joins her high school classmates as they burn down the church.
Nobody cares about an old Negro church in the 1940’s East Texas town of Sabine except for the Sheriff, who tries to do the right thing despite the town’s bigotry. But there are more pressing matters. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and the boys who have just graduated from high school are eager to prove their manhood by joining the army. A call goes out to the young women to fulfill their patriotic duty and work in the California munitions factories. Although Frosty’s parents believe it is against God’s will for a woman to have a job, Frosty knows this is her only chance to get away from her oppressive home. California opens Frosty’s eyes to a world of possibilities, including a relationship with a young Navajo soldier who knows what it’s like to feel out of place. But can a romance between two misfits really work? And will that one crime that was so devastating to Frosty’s emotions come back to haunt her, years after almost everyone else has forgotten it?
The majority of The Water and the Blood is written in Frosty’s first-person narrative. We experience her poignant struggle to find self-respect and love in a home where none of her interests or strengths are valued. Her voice is authentic as she struggles to reconcile her growing beliefs about the equality of people with what she has always been told about the inferiority of other races. There is a definite lack of sentimentality, which would have been inappropriate for her character, but nevertheless her yearnings and emotions shine through.
Other portions of the novel are written in third-person from the point of view of secondary characters, including Gordon Benally, the Navajo who plays a large part in Frosty’s life, and several of the other residents of Frosty’s home town. I found the mixture of first and third person to be mildly disruptive, but the novel is enriched by Gordon’s own identity struggles, older sister Deely’s smug, sanctimonious musings and Frosty’s male classmates’ experiences overseas fighting a devastating war.
Despite the serious subject matter, gentle humor is sprinkled throughout the novel. However, the last hundred pages of The Water and the Blood are as horrifying and spellbinding as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Frosty is drawn back to her hometown for a final confrontation that will challenge everything she has come to cherish - her freedom, her self-respect and her relationship with the one person who understands her. I finished the novel, let my breath out, and could only repeat “Wow!” for a good five minutes or so. I plan to re-read this book as soon as I get a chance, and it earns a very secure place on my keeper shelf. If you loved These Is My Words - especially if you yearned for a different ending - you will be enthralled by The Water and the Blood.