Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic Books; 250 pages; $15.95).
In her seventh novel, Gathering of Waters, author Bernice L. McFadden skillfully combines history with folklore and magical realism. She also re-imagines the 1955 brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. What results is a breathtaking literary masterpiece of epic proportions.
Gathering of Waters is notable because Ms. McFadden does something in her book that is not often done. She tells her story from the point of view of the town of Money, Mississippi. Money sees all; Money knows all. Money is everywhere. “I am Money. Money Mississippi. I have been figments of imaginations, shadows and sudden movements seen out of the corner of your eye. I have been dewdrops, falling stars, silence, flowers, and snails.” I cannot remember the last novel I read in which the narrator was not a person but a place. This is such a unique and fresh method of storytelling in a time when the first person plural (“we”) has become increasingly popular.
Ms. McFadden turns Money into a character. Her use of personification, attributing human characteristics to non-living things, is near divine. For instance, Money feels pain and has a memory, “For a time I lived as a beating heart, another life found me swimming upstream toward a home nestled in my memory. Once I was a language that died. I have been sunlight, snowdrifts, and sweet babies’ breath.”
Money also is an abundance of knowledge for us and explains Ms. McFadden’s title: “You know, before white men came with their smiles, Bibles, guns, and disease, this place that I am was inhabited by Native men. Choctaw Indians. It was the Choctaw who gave the state its name: Mississippi—which means many gathering of waters.”
Money is particularly interested in one of the families who lives within its confines. Money tells us: “Admittedly, I am guilty of a very long and desperate fascination with a family that I followed for decades. In hindsight, I believe that I was drawn to the beautifully tragic heartbrokenness of their lives, and so for years remained with them, helplessly tethered, like a mare to a post.” That family is the Hilson family: Reverend August, his wife Doll, and their children, Hemmingway and Paris.
An evil spirit inhabits the body of Doll Hilson. Her name is Esther, and she was once a prostitute who now goes from host to host. Money explains that “when objects are destroyed and bodies perish, the souls flit off in search of a new home.” Esther does just that; she comes into Doll’s soul at the moment of her birth. Doll’s mother, Coraline, remembers: “You come into this world screaming holy murder, and didn’t stop until you were a month old. Like to drive me outta my mind. It was your daddy–God rest his soul–who stopped me from throwing you down the well.” Doll responds, in Esther’s voice, “Maybe you the one shoulda gone down the well.” Not even death stops Esther. When Doll dies, she simply finds another human to torment. This demon destroys the lives of three generations of women in the Hilson family.
Esther also causes the brutal slaying of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till when she enters the body of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Roy Bryant. These two men beat the teen, who was from Chicago and vacationing in the area, to death for supposedly whistling at Bryant’s wife. Please do not think Ms. McFadden is trivializing Till’s murder; she is not. She is not trying to explain it away either. Ms. McFadden puts her own spin on it, which is what fiction writers must do.
Gathering of Waters also features two disasters that caused massive devastation and loss of life in Mississippi, this place where many waters converge: the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina. Money describes how in April of 1927 “most folk in Mississippi couldn’t think of anything but rain, mud, mosquitoes, and flooding.” Conditions worsen quickly. Money is overrun by the waters of the Mississippi when the levees give way: Bodies are everywhere; some float, some are caught in trees. Ms. McFadden brings this horrible natural disaster to life.
But she does not stop there. When Gathering of Waters ends in 2005, Mississippi braces for another calamity, and she is named Katrina. Money sounds angry when it talks about the storm: “In the Gulf of Mexico, she suddenly turned furious. Draped in black clouds, blowing wind, and driving rain, she charged into Louisiana like a bull and fanned her billowing dark skirts over Mississippi.” Guess who Money believes Katrina is? If you guess Esther, you are correct. “They named her Katrina,” Money scoffs, “but I looked into the eye of that storm and recognized her for who she really was: Esther…cackling and clapping her hands with glee.”
At the end of Ms. McFadden’s novel, Money warns, “As you go about your lives, keep in mind that an evil act can ruin generations….” Yet, take heart, for “gestures of love and kindness will survive and thrive forever.” When Money talks, we should listen.