Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden



“Listen, if you choose to believe nothing else that transpires here, believe this: your body does not have a soul; your soul has a body, and souls never, ever die.”

– Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden


I have better reading news today, you’ll be glad to know. This is a step forward from my last post in which I whined about an unusual situation of reading ennui, the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a very long time – so long I was convinced no such dry spell would plague me ever again. Because I own thousands of books, right? How could there be nothing interesting to read in a house that’s more library than average American home?

Get really depressed. I mean really, really depressed. Lose your job, break up with your boyfriend, total your car, question why you exist. Pick a catastrophe, any catastrophe. Then let me know how your reading’s going. A little tough getting into books? Yeah, tell me about it. Or don’t. I have my own troubles, buddy. I should be boring you with my story, since this is my blog and all. Hell, maybe I am.

Let’s move on.

All that’s moot now, thanks partly to Bernice McFadden‘s Gathering of Waters. Set in the tiny, real-life town of Money, Mississippi, along the Tallahatchie River, GoW is on the surface a fairly standard tale of white vs. black. In less skilled hands the book would be a wearying, same old same old story set in the  1950s American South. Like ‘The Help,’ for example, a “We need to feel better about how horribly our country treated African Americans, so let’s tell a feel-good – but shallow and trite – story that ends happily.”

Screw that.

Gathering of Waters uses a very familiar framework to tell the real story of the murder of Emmett Till, killed by a crazy jealous white man in 1955. The bloody, shameful historical record is couched by such exquisite passages it’s amazing the beauty that can be created around the most ugly of human actions. McFadden weaves the story of the virtual assassination of Till, accused of having whistled at the wife of a psychotic, mentally unbalanced former military man, into the coming of age stories of several other characters, white and black. Stories that interlock within a very small, insular community, putting the relationships between all the characters in context.

Till doesn’t even show up in the first half of the book. Before that it’s all about the families in Money: the black sharecroppers at the bottom, the white sharecroppers just above and the upper class whites ruling them all, holding the purse strings and making the laws. Those with money are on one side of the Tallahatchie, those without on the other. On one side the houses are grand, on the other are shacks held together by a few nails and a lot of luck.

By and large things are harmonious in Money, so long as each person remembers his place. The rich carry out their business and the blacks do the same, with the extra caution they don’t step out of line while doing so. And there are the stories of young love, in most if not all cases ultimately turned sour. Nothing in Money comes to a good end.

Till, visiting from Chicago, isn’t even sure he’s seen the woman in question, much less whistled at her, though in the novel she sees Till and his group of friends. Looking on, she’s charmed by how young and carefree they all are. Till was falling in love with a young black woman, Tass Hilson, and the sweetness of their relationship made the woman smile. From that came the accusation Till “didn’t know how to treat white women in Mississippi.” No trial, no law, no proof: just vengeance without justification based on the delusion of a mentally ill, violent man filled with insatiable hatred and blood lust for someone, anyone.

As an integral aside, there’s a thread about supernatural possession, one portrayed so authentically it’s hard to tell where truth – fictionalized or not – ends and fiction begins. The female spirit is a whorish character – already dead before the story starts – an evil entity who jumps from body to body, turning good people into savage, morally bankrupt individuals who hurt all around them with their insatiable sexuality and greed.  She usually chooses to inhabit women, causing them to seduce otherwise morally taboo men, but in one instance she jumps from a little girl to a dead boy, bringing him back to life a changed, disturbed young man who makes the lives of those around him a sort of hell.

Gathering of Waters is a fine novel, despite what seems to me the cheesy convention of a non-human entity narrating the tale. It’s nicely complex, with characters and storylines overlapping. And the Till story itself isn’t necessarily the main focus, at least until the second half of the book. Maybe that’s why I appreciate it so much. McFadden’s not using Till to make the book, to shore up the story. Even without him it would have been a fine novel. Adding him, though, puts everything in context, telling the full story of Money, Mississippi. What seems like a well run – if not always pretty – town that sprung up from nowhere to make a name for itself proves to be the setting of one of the most notorious lynchings in U.S. history.

In short: evil can happen anywhere.

The book’s a fine southern novel and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for McFadden’s other works.