Children of the Waters: A Novel

( 5 )


Still reeling from divorce and feeling estranged from her teenage son, Trish Taylor is in the midst of salvaging the remnants of her life when she uncovers a shocking secret: her sister is alive. For years Trish believed that her mother and infant sister had died in a car accident. But the truth is that her mother fatally overdosed and that Trish’s grandparents put the baby girl up for adoption because her father was black.

After years of drawing on the strength of her black ...

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Still reeling from divorce and feeling estranged from her teenage son, Trish Taylor is in the midst of salvaging the remnants of her life when she uncovers a shocking secret: her sister is alive. For years Trish believed that her mother and infant sister had died in a car accident. But the truth is that her mother fatally overdosed and that Trish’s grandparents put the baby girl up for adoption because her father was black.

After years of drawing on the strength of her black ancestors, Billie Cousins is shocked to discover that she was adopted. Just as surprising, after finally overcoming a series of health struggles, she is pregnant–a dream come true for Billie but a nightmare for her sweetie, Nick, and for her mother, both determined to protect Billie from anything that may disrupt her well-being.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice manages to explore the difficult, messy and unpleasant details of life with both humor and wisdom. The parallel journeys of sisters, Trish and Billie, will resonate with everyone and anyone who has questioned their identity and place in this world. Once again, Carleen Brice has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable novel that gets at the heart of the human experience." – Lori Tharps, author of Kinky Gazpacho

“I was exhausted and singing the blues the hour I began Carleen Brice's new novel, Children of the Waters. Five hours later, I'd finished this fresh, free-rein novel about mothers’ secrets and children's sorrows and was shouting 'Hurray!'” – Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean

“In Children of the Waters, Carleen Brice deftly explores issues of family, identity, and race with a wonderful abundance of humor, forgiveness, and grace. This moving story of two sisters separated by prejudice will open minds and touch hearts. —Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters

“Carleen Brice highlights the effects of America's complicated relationship with race and identity…a clear and insightful depiction of what it means to be American at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Brice knows how far we have come and how far there is left to go, and in Children of the Waters she deftly lays it all out for the reader to see.”—Matthew Aaron Goodman, author of Hold Love Strong

Publishers Weekly

Brice's uneven second novel (after Orange Mint and Honey) follows two lonely women as they discover they have a lot in common. Having survived a messy divorce and a move back to her hometown of Denver, Trish Taylor already has her hands full raising her teenage son when she reads a letter left by her deceased grandmother. In it, her grandmother reveals that Trish's mother died from a heroin overdose and Trish's baby sister, Billie, was given up for adoption because the father was black. Despite her grandparents' prejudice, Trish has no issues with race. She's white, her ex-husband is black, but Billie is unwilling to believe that her adoptive parents would have kept the secret that she was adopted and is biracial. Billie has other problems as well: an unplanned pregnancy has sent her jazz-musician boyfriend packing and she, like Trish, has lupus. Brice sets up the sisters for the blandest of confrontations (one watches chick flicks, the other teaches African dance), but as they come together in the second half of the book, the initially stock characters develop enough to compensate for a narrative tending toward melodrama. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345499073
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/23/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 970,103
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Carleen Brice was recently named 2008 “Breakout Author of the Year” by The African American Literary Awards Show for her debut novel Orange Mint and Honey, which was also a selection of the Essence Book Club. She is also the author of Walk Tall:Affirmations for People of Color, and Lead Me Home: An African American’s Guide Through the Grief Journey and edited the anthology Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband and two cats.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Since Trish Taylor came back home to Aurora, Colorado, she had found ten jigsaw puzzle pieces. They seemed to be everywhere: on the sidewalk near her house, in the parking lot at the grocery store, in the park where she walked her dogs.

Trish’s grandmother used to put jigsaws together. Now, a different type of woman would have started to think something funny was going on, that all these puzzle pieces were some kind of sign. But Trish wasn’t the kind who believed in symbols or signs from above. No gods, ghosts, afterlives, religion, or anything that couldn’t be studied and quantified.

She believed in a life force. She had felt it when she was pregnant, and had seen it in animals in the different clinics where she had worked. So natural? Yes. But supernatural? No way, José. She’d known there wasn’t a god since she was four years old, when her mother and baby sister were killed in a car accident.

She’d been on her way to work this morning at Friendly’s Animal Hospital when she’d found the eleventh puzzle piece on the sidewalk right in front of the doors. She picked it up and bounced it in her left hand, the small pasteboard piece making a soft clicking sound against the peridot mother’s ring she wore where her wedding ring used to be. The question that came to her when she found the first puzzle piece tickled the back of her mind, but again she dismissed it. One of her coworkers must have dropped it on the way in. Or maybe a client’s child had lost it yesterday.

“Don’t be silly,” she said to herself, blowing blond bangs out of her eyes. She slid the jigsaw piece into the pocket of her scrubs and went inside to stock the treatment rooms with supplies before the first clients arrived. She set the puzzle piece on the front counter while she reached for her key to the supply room and pharmacy.

“Qué es?” Alicia Alemán asked.

Alicia, the practice manager, was the closest thing to a friend Trish had since she returned to Colorado. Friendly’s was a three-doctor practice. All the vets were male and over forty. The rest of the staff was female, and most were so young Trish and Alicia secretly called them fetuses. Half-Mexican and half-Cuban, Alicia was even shorter than Trish (who was only five foot one) and reminded her of a beautiful tabby cat. Fat and sleek at the same time, caramel-skinned, with lush black hair. The definition of the word feminine. No matter the weather, she was always in heels and a skirt. One evening they went for drinks after work and Trish watched a man jab his chin with a fork full of food, missing his own mouth, because he was staring at Alicia.

“Nothing. I found it. I keep finding pieces of puzzles.”

“Cómo que. . .?”

“I’ve found eleven puzzle pieces in the last month.”


“All over town.”

Alicia scrunched up her face, creating charming little wrinkles around her eyes. “To the same puzzle?”

“No. Different parts of different puzzles.”

“Why would you be finding puzzle pieces?”

“I have no idea.”

“Do you do puzzles?”

“No.” Trish hesitated. If she said the ridiculous idea she couldn’t seem to shake, the conversation was going to veer in a direction she was pretty sure she didn’t want it to go. “My grandmother liked to do puzzles.”

“Your abuela who’s dead?”

Alicia was very close to her family. A semi-lapsed Catholic, she was divorced and only went to mass on Easter and Christmas Eve, but she still crossed herself before she ate and lit a candle to St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, every time they lost a patient.

“Don’t get all weird on me,” Trish said. “It’s just a coincidence.”

“Believing in ghosts isn’t weird.”

“Uh, I don’t know about on your planet, but on my planet it is.”

“Hey, my people invented a whole day to celebrate those who have passed on. On El Día de los Muertos we decorate and play music and put out food as offerings for our dead relatives.”

“But that’s totally symbolic. You don’t really think they come back to eat the food.”

“Mira, your abuela could be trying to talk to you.”

Though she wasn’t ready to admit it, this was the question that was swirling around in her mind: Were the puzzle pieces from Nana? “To say what? The woman barely spoke to me when she was alive. Why would she start talking to me now?”

“Se las da de sabihonda.” Alicia said to herself with frustration, tucking a few strands of hair that had the audacity to go astray behind her ear. The rest of the female staff wore jewelry with little dogs or cats on it. No critter earrings for Alicia though. Today, she had small gold hoops in her ears. Trish would have bet money that Alicia slid out of her mother’s womb wearing pearls. Simple and elegant even at birth. “She’s not my grandmother. How should I know?”

“The only advice she ever gave me was ‘Keep your legs crossed until you graduate.’ ”

Alicia laughed. “That’s not the worst advice I ever heard.”

“And why is it that when the dead ‘speak’ they don’t come out and say what they mean? Why do they always use mysterious hints and clues? I mean really, fuck. Nana, if you’ve got something to say, just say it already.”

“This is how you speak to your grandma?”

Trish rolled her eyes. “That’s my point. She can’t hear me.”

“That’s my point. You’re so fresca, cynical. You think life is supposed to always make sense. Not everything about life and death is so reasonable and rational. You watch, once you figure out what she’s trying to tell you, you’ll stop finding puzzle pieces.”

She got a fun-size chocolate bar out of the bowl on the counter. “Here. I know you think chocolate makes sense.”

“Sadly, this is true,” Trish said, opening the foil and popping the candy into her mouth. Chocolate, doughnuts, cookies, and pizza were Trish’s four food groups. The sweetness melting on her tongue now was almost enough to make her forget the fact that she had gone up another dress size since her separation and divorce. She’d always been chunky, but now about the only thing she felt comfortable in were her drawstring scrubs.

Back when things were good, Tommy, her ex, who was black, used to tease her about her curves, saying things like, “How’d a white girl end up with a big juicy booty like this?” But a few years after having Will she went from having a luscious ass to being fat and boring, and by the time Will was four, Tommy was cheating on her.

“I totally have to go on a diet,” she said.

Alicia rubbed her chin theatrically. “Hmmm. Where have I heard that one before?”

Trish frowned. It was all Tommy’s fault. So she gained a little weight after getting married and having a baby. Who didn’t? But the real weight didn’t start to pile on until after she started finding condoms in his pocket and strange phone numbers on his cell.

“I mean it this time. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to change something.” And not only her weight. Trish had ostensibly come back to Colorado from North Carolina to escape the heat and humidity, but there was more to it than that. She was also hoping she’d be able to figure some things out. She was thirty-six and divorced, and her only son would leave the nest in a couple of years. If she wasn’t going to be a wife and a mom, what was she going to be? Somehow she thought that if she came back to the place where she and Tommy had started, and where her family had started and disintegrated, she’d be able to figure out who she was again. If there was anything left for her, it had to be here.

But the last eight months had been taken up finding a house and a job and enrolling Will in school. She worked four days a week for at least ten hours, often eleven or twelve. And between her job, Will, and her dogs, she found herself just as lost here as she had been back in North Carolina.

“Maybe your abuela is trying to give you some clues about how to change.”

Trish nearly choked on her candy. Nana giving anybody clues about changing their life was totally crazy. She looked at the clock. “I better get started. It’s almost time to open the madhouse.”

Over the course of the day, they saw a Lab that had swallowed six rocks, several vomiting cats, a cat that had killed a squirrel (a serious concern, since some squirrels in the area had tested positive for the plague), a dog that had been hit by a car, and lots of dogs and cats being treated for diseases like kidney failure, cancer, and diabetes. Trish barely had time to go to the bathroom, let alone think about puzzles and her dead grandmother.

At the end of the day, Shelli Pierce, one of their regular clients, brought in a Boston terrier she’d found.

“Left at Chatfield Reservoir like so much garbage,” Shelli said furiously in a clipped accent still reminiscent of a childhood spent in England, her bushy ginger hair quivering with indignation. She was a compact woman with tiny round eyes and a sharp, cunning face like a Pomeranian.

The Boston terrier’s ribs were showing, his breath was bad, and he had no tags or ID chip.

“I’d put him about a year old, and he hasn’t been neutered,” Dr. Pat muttered as he examined him.

That was how friendly Friendly’s was: Clients were encouraged to call the vets by doctor and their first names.

Tall, skinny, hawk nosed, Patrick Volt was from the old days of vet med, when it was a man’s game. Trish had hated Patrick since she started working there. Today, most veterinarians and technicians were women, but Dr. Pat treated everybody but the other doctors like servants. Well, except for Alicia. Nobody fucked with Alicia.

“Definitely mange,” Dr. Pat said authoritatively, parting the dog’s matted fur to look at his skin.

Trish mentally rolled her eyes. It didn’t take six years of schooling to know that.

“He keeps dragging his bum,” Shelli volunteered. “So I brought in a fresh sample.”

“I’m sure we’ll find worms.”

We as in me, Trish thought, accepting the plastic bag of dog poop Shelli held up.

“Look at those big beautiful eyes,” Shelli cooed to the scared dog. “Don’t worry, puppy. I’ll take you home soon. Yes I will. Yes I will.”

Trish knew this was coming. Their records showed that Shelli had five dogs and six cats, more animals than the city allowed, and the staff was almost certain Shelli had other pets that she took to another clinic. “Just how many dogs do you have now?” Trish asked.

“What are you implying? I’m the good guy here! I saved this dog’s life!” Shelli snapped. “Are you saying I don’t take care of my animals? Because I take care of my animals! You should know that, considering you people have made a small fortune off me. I do not have to take this!”

She held her head high as if suddenly the animal smell of the clinic was disturbing her fine senses. But her overreaction only confirmed Trish’s suspicions.

Dr. Pat’s dark bushy eyebrows flew up. It always freaked Trish out that his eyebrows were black, but his hair had gone gray.

“That is not how we converse with our clients. Please apologize right now!”

Grrr. “I’m just looking out for you and the welfare of all your animals. That’s all.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do too.”

Well, at least she knows that someone around here has an eye on her. “Good. Then I apologize and I’m glad we agree.” Trish turned to go to the lab with the bag of feces.

“Apology accepted,” Shelli said grudgingly. “I’ll be back to pick up Jigsaw tomorrow.”

Trish spun around. “Excuse me? What did you call him?”

Dr. Pat glared down at Trish over his bifocals. “Jigsaw’s a great name! Very unique,” he said.

Shelli beamed. “I thought of it because he’ll fit so well with the rest of the family. All my dogs are little ones, so they don’t scare the cats. He’ll fit right in.”

The tickling in the back of her mind got a little stronger, but Trish still didn’t believe that Nana was somehow communicating from beyond the grave. Trish was sure as shit that she wasn’t supposed to let this dog go home with a hoarder.

After she went to the lab, she walked Shelli out to the front door. Just before she opened it, she leaned in close and whispered forcefully, “You’re not taking that dog home. You have enough, more than enough animals.”

Shelli gasped, but Trish held up one hand to stop her. “And I’m prepared to call animal control and file a report to prove it if I have to.”

The tiny woman cringed. “You wouldn’t.”

Trish opened the door. “Try me.”

Shelli drew all fifty-some inches of herself up straight and puffed her chest out. “I’ve been thinking I should look for another veterinarian. Now I’m sure of it,” she said with a huff and marched out.

Trish closed the door behind her. It was time to lock up. She went into her pocket for the keys and the curves of the puzzle piece she had found that morning scratched a question she struggled to ignore against her fingertips. No way am I calling that poor dog Jigsaw, she thought. She turned the sign over so it read “Sorry, We’re Closed” and locked the door behind her.

Chapter 2


Billie Cousins shook exactly seven drops of sunflower oil mixed with lavender and rose essential oils into the palms of her hands. Then she bowed her head.

“Grandmothers and grandfathers,

Please watch over me.

Please watch over my man.

Please watch over the child growing inside me, who is of him and of me.

Thank you for your wisdom.

Thank you for your strength.

Thank you for your protection.


We’ll name our baby Ambata, she thought. “To connect” in Kiswahili. She said it out loud, “Ambata,” and anointed a pink candle with the blessing oil. Pink, the color of health and spiritual and familial love. She lit the candle and placed it on the low white-cloth-covered table next to the stick that showed the word “pregnant” in its little window. Also on the makeshift altar were a glass of fresh water (purification), a cobalt blue bowl filled with cornmeal (to feed the ancestors’ spirits), a scallop shell (representing the Great Mother from which we all come), a few copper pennies (an offering to the ancestors), and photos of her deceased grandparents and great-aunts and

-uncles. Because Billie didn’t have an actual photo of her great- grandmother—the Cheyenne Indian who had passed down her long nose, narrow eyes, and wide cheekbones to her—she had framed a picture of a Cheyenne girl taken by the famous Western photographer Edward S. Curtis.

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Reading Group Guide

1. On p. 230, Billie puts dirt from her mother’s grave in her mojo bag, noting that, “Dirt from a mother’s grave was some of the strongest protection there was.” Why do you think that is? What protective elements would you put in your mojo bag?

 2. Do you agree with Trish in keeping Will out of church while he was grounded?

 3. Was Will justified in being angry with the mall security guard who picked him up for shoplifting? 

4. Was Billie unrealistic in how she expected Nick to react to the news of her pregnancy? Do you think she purposefully tried to get pregnant against his will? 

5. How would you gauge Trish’s decision to visit Billie, despite Zenobia asking her not to out of concern for Billie’s illness and the health of the baby? Would you say Trish’s actions were selfish? How could her visit have benefited Billie? In Trish’s shoes, would you have visited Billie immediately, or would you have respected Zenobia’s wishes and waited until after the pregnancy? 

6. How did you feel about Billie’s visit to her mother and grandparents’ burial site? Did you think her harsh words to her grandparents were warranted? Did it seem hypocritical of her to speak to her true maternal ancestors in that way after she so reverenced her other ancestors? 

7. Why do you think Zenobia and Herbert chose to keep Billie’s adoption a secret? Do you feel that adopted children should always be informed about their natural parentage? 

8. What do you think Tommy’s role is in Will’s life? And do you think he’s more important to Will, or to Trish, and why? 

9. Why do you think it took so long–until meeting Billie, really– for Will to find a connection to his African American heritage? Why didn’t he learn about black history earlier? Do you think Trish’s desires to see the world through a colorblind lens helped or harmed him in the end? 

10. How would you compare or contrast Will and Billie with regard to how they construct their ethnic identities? Billie’s sense of identity was shaken when she learned of her mixed-race heritage. In what way does Will, when he is accused of shoplifting, also have to face startling truths about his ethnicity? 

11. Billie sums up the way she was treated by black girls on p. 234 by saying, “I ‘talked white’ and was light-skinned so they used to pick on me.” What does “talking white” mean? Have you experienced being called (or calling someone else) an oreo? What impact did that experience have on your idea of race and skin color? 

12. Does the information she found justify Billie’s searching through Nick’s things on p. 236? Have you ever snooped through a loved one’s belongings and had your suspicions confirmed? How did you feel afterward, and were you able to forgive or be forgiven? 

13. Did you sense anything fishy going on at Clear View Church? Was the clergy’s outward showing of wealth suspicious to you? What did you think was at work within that church? Why do you think it was attractive to Will? 

14. On p. 255, Trish says to Billie, “Face it, mixed-race people are the hottest thing going! Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Alicia Keys! What have you got to complain about? How has your life been so bad?” Is what Trish said true? How do you perceive people of biracial parentage? Are they more privileged than their singlerace peers? 

15. On p. 282 Will says, “Are you black because of your skin color? Are you black because of how you talk or how you dress?” How would you answer him? What does make a black person black and a white person white in America? Do you think that race is more of a social construct or a biological one? 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 11, 2011

    Thoroughly enjoyed it!

    I was already a fan of Carleen Brice after Orange Mint and Honey. This book reaffirmed that. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I didn't want to put it down as I was so interested in finding out "what happens next" to Trish and Billie. The characters and the dialogue were real and the development of the story was perfectly paced for me. It was a quick read, but the story wasn't light by any means. I laughed, cried and at points disliked the characters--e.g. Nick and Will (they do redeem themselves by the end). By the end of the book, I felt like these were people I could know. The interview with Ms. Brice at the end was especially enlightening as to how the story/characters were developed.

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  • Posted February 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Foreseeable Future,

    Trish Taylor has been finding puzzle pieces every place she goes. She'd like to believe it was a coincidence, but the fact that her grandmother loved to work puzzles has her wondering if maybe Nana is trying to connect with her from beyond the grave. Still settling back into Colorado, her hometown, after a divorce with a teenage son, Will, a house full of dogs and a job she loves working for people she hates, Trish is more than certain her imagination has gotten away from her.

    Billie Cousins is going to have a baby. Excited, she immediately becomes concerned with how her man, Nick, will feel once he finds out. With the recent death of his dad, Nick has become more withdrawn from their relationship. A gentle soul, Billie believes that her ancestors help to guide her path. She refuses to believe that Nick will feel anything but joy about their impending delivery.

    When Trish finally decides to put the pieces together, it quickly unravels and so does a life filled with untold truths. Her mother and sister didn`t die from a car wreck. What`s worse is her little sister didn`t die. When she learns the identity of her sister, she`s ready to charge right in and claim the family that she`s always longed for.

    Unbeknownst to Billie, she`s adopted. While she often wondered why she didn't favor her parents, she was blessed with love and security. When her parents explain to her that she was not only adopted, but her mother was white, Billie's life hits a brick wall.

    Opened arms and ready to blend their lives together, Trish can't understand why Billie is so standoffish and unwilling to at least try. The more the two get to know one another they both learn tidbits about race, love, religion, relations and death. Can they learn to be sisters, despite the skin color, in the process?

    `Children of the Waters' is an impressive read. It tackles race as well as religion present day. I'm quickly becoming a fan of Carleen Brice and would easily recommend this moving story to all.

    Reviewed by: Crystal

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  • Posted August 31, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I enjoyed the book, liked the characters and loved the capacity of the human spirit for growth and forgiveness.

    There are many intriguing elements to Children of the Waters. The author does an excellent job of encapsulating the dynamics of adoption, bi-racial marriage, bi-racial children, and family secrets. The story is well written and believable, although tragic. From the onset you care about what happens to the characters. The characters discover their inner strength; establish new familial boundaries and expectations in order to deal with some tough issues. However, most interesting is the way the author discusses Christianity. It is hard to envision that a mother would "fear" her son's acceptance of Christ in his life, like you fear a child hanging with the "wrong" crowd. The notion was a surprise and very thought provoking. Much like Orange Mint & Honey, I enjoyed the book, liked the characters and loved the capacity of the human spirit for growth and forgiveness.

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  • Posted July 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Children of the Waters

    Children of the Waters was an interesting read for me as I don't really like themes of abandonment but I found myself caught up in the story if for no other reason to see the outcome of the characters Carleen Brice so brilliantly created and wrote about. I was most interested in the character named Billie who had for me the most to deal with in the story. Billie has lupus and is in LOVE with Nick who has his own demons to deal with that affect the relationship in ways that almost had me turning to the end to see what and how they were going to deal with it. Several issues crop up for Billie and the way Carleen writes the story, I'm sure you'll be rooting for her as I was. Carleen has done it again with a story that has real life themes that keep you turning the pages just like I did when reading Orange Mint and Honey. I look forward to the next book by this author who is now one of my favorites.

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    Posted January 27, 2010

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    Posted December 27, 2011

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