The Water Dancers

The Water Dancers

3.8 5
by Terry Gamble

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A stunning debut novel from a new voice in literary fiction, set on Lake Michigan following World War II, The Water Dancers limns the divide between the worlds of the wealthy elite "summer people" and the poor native population who serve them–and what happens when those worlds collide.

When Rachel Winnapee first comes to work at the March

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A stunning debut novel from a new voice in literary fiction, set on Lake Michigan following World War II, The Water Dancers limns the divide between the worlds of the wealthy elite "summer people" and the poor native population who serve them–and what happens when those worlds collide.

When Rachel Winnapee first comes to work at the March family summer home on vast and beautiful Lake Michigan, she quickly learns her place. Servants are seen and not heard as they bring the breakfast trays, wash and iron luxurious clothes, and serve gin and tonics to the wealthy family as they lounge on the deck playing bridge. Orphaned as a poverty–stricken young girl from the nearby band of Native Americans, Rachel is in awe of the Marches' glamorous life–and quite enamored of the family's son Woody.

Rachel is soon assigned the task of caring for Woody, a young man whose life has been changed utterly by his experience as a soldier in WWII. The war has cost Woody not only his leg, but, worse, the older brother he loved and admired. Now back at home, Woody cannot bear to face the obligations of his future – especially when it comes to his bride–to–be Elizabeth. Woody finds himself drawn to Rachel, who is like no one he's ever known. The love affair that unites these two lost souls in this Great Gatsby–esque portrait of class division will alter the course of their lives in ways both heartbreaking and profound.

This novel's richness is due, in part, to the author's memories of summers spent at her family's house on Lake Michigan, home to six generations of Gambles (as in Procter & Gamble). THE WATER DANCERS, told in a voice as clear and cool as lake water, is a luminescent tale of love, loss and redemption, and heralds the arrival of a remarkable new talent.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Gamble's voice is often fresh and assured, yielding a first novel that bodes well for her second. — Betsy Broban
The Washington Post
The novel reflects the author's deep affinity for Michigan's natural landscape: Both water and land serve as sources of connection, and Gamble's descriptions of sailing on Lake Michigan are among her best. The Odawas' fascinating, if curious, ritual of eating dirt (geophagy) and stones (lithophagy) underscores their intense longing for the land. — Heather Hewett
Publishers Weekly
Racial and class conflicts simmer in this lackluster first novel by Gamble, a romance set in a district of lavish summer homes on Lake Michigan and in a nearby Native American community. Sixteen-year-old Rachel Winnapee, an orphaned Odawa Indian, goes to work as a maid for the affluent March family in 1945. She becomes a nurse for the Marches' son, Woody, recently back from the war minus a leg. The two have an affair that ends with the close of the summer season, after which Rachel discovers that she's pregnant. She doesn't tell Woody (who goes on to marry a society girl), and she raises the baby, Ben, on a nearby farm owned by the two midwives who delivered him. After nine years on the farm, Rachel becomes reacquainted with Honda Jack, an aspiring Native American community leader from her Odawa settlement. He persuades Rachel to move back, and she once again encounters the snobbish Mrs. March, who tells her that Woody has recently died in an accident. Rachel tells her the truth about Ben, and the two make a secret pact: Mrs. March will give Rachel enough money for Honda Jack to purchase the land that whites have stolen from the Odawa, and Rachel promises to keep Ben's father's identity hidden. The volume then skips to 1970, when Ben, back from Vietnam, returns to the Odawa community and finds work near the March home. Soon the March and Winnapee families begin to learn each other's secrets, leading to an explosive finale. Gamble is sincere in her critique of the prejudice and carelessness of the exclusive summer set. The plot is melodramatic, however, and the characters are painted in broad, familiar strokes, weakening the impact of Gamble's plea for social justice. Agent, Carole Bidnick. 7-city author tour. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Moving from 1945 to 1956 to 1970, this first novel explores issues of race, class, and duty among the summer people on Lake Michigan. The Marches, a prominent family who divide their time between St. Louis and the lake, face adversity when the favorite son is killed in World War II and the surviving son, Woody, returns without a leg and with a drug problem. A family (husband, wife, and daughter) of African American servants make the trip with them, and their social circles change little with their location. In the summer, the family is assisted by a young Native American girl, Rachel, a charity case referred by the local nuns. Before the war, Woody was engaged to Elizabeth, who's having a hard time reconciling herself to marrying a wounded veteran. Rachel has known enough of life to have little sympathy for Woody's self-pity but not enough of servitude to humble herself like the full-time servants. She bullies Woody into healing, and in the process, the two fall in love. By summer's end, Woody is whole enough to marry Elizabeth, and Rachel is too proud to let him know she's expecting. These three characters, plus two sons, are reunited in 1956 to tragic end. By 1970, social mores have changed enough to allow sons born to wealth to avoid military service, while sons born to poverty go off and fight their wars for them. A descendant of a Procter and Gamble cofounder, the author clearly knows the class system of which she writes, and her sympathies lie with the servant classes and not her own. This is not social criticism, however, but a literary work that is not exactly a compelling page-turner but does feature well-drawn characters and engaging prose. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut about a young Indian woman’s tangled relations with a wealthy white family. Rachel Winnapee learned to fend for herself at an early age. Abandoned by her parents, she was raised first by her grandmother, then by the nuns who took her into their orphanage after her grandmother died. At 16, she was hired ("as a charity") by the wealthy St. Louis Catholic Lydia March to work as a housemaid in the family’s Michigan summer home. The Marches were not a particularly happy bunch that summer: Their elder son Lipscott had recently died in WWII, and their other boy Woody had just returned from his own service in the Pacific minus a leg. Rachel is soon pressed into service as a kind of unofficial therapist for Woody, who is too traumatized by his brother’s death to care much about putting his own life back into order. Eventually Woody and she fall in love, and Rachel becomes pregnant with Woody’s child. The charitable Mrs. March finds a couple of elderly spinsters to take Rachel in until the baby is born--but Rachel refuses to give the boy up for adoption. She raises him Ben on her own and tries to put Woody (who never answered her letters) out of her mind. When she and Woody meet again, 11 years later, Woody (now married with a son of his own) shocks Rachel by telling her that he knew nothing of Ben and had been told that Rachel ran away. Woody makes arrangements (just in time, as it turns out) to recognize Ben as his legal heir. But can the will hold up in court? Lydia March is not a woman to mess around with--though she may have met her match in Rachel. More in the tradition of Dynasty than The Forsythe Saga--but readable and fresh all the same. Author tour. Agent: Carole Bidnick/CaroleBidnick & Co.

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The Water Dancers

A Novel
By Terry Gamble

William Morrow

ISBN: 0060542667

Chapter One


For six weeks, Rachel had been working at the Marches' house - six weeks of lining drawers, airing closets, carrying laundry, and she still couldn't keep the back stairs straight. One flight led from the kitchen to the dining room, the other up two floors to the bedrooms. Even the hallways confused her, twisting or stopping altogether. Wings and porches splayed out. Doors banged into each other. Twelve bedrooms and no one to use them but an old woman, the hope of one son, the ghost of another, and a girl who had died in infancy.

Even Mr. March would only come toward the end of August, if he came at all. It was a house of women. Since the beginning of the war, women had prepared the food, cleaned the floors, kept the books, given the orders, folded the sheets, scraped the dough off butcher's block. Then there was the ironing. Rachel had scorched three damask napkins before she got it right. The Kelvinator in the pantry made her crazy with its humming. The oven smelled of gas. Something was always boiling, fueling the humidity. When she had left the convent that morning to come to work, the air was so close, the dormitory where the girls slept had grown ripe with sweat. "Sister told us you could iron," said the cook, Ella Mae.

Her old, black eyes rested on Rachel's braids as though there might be bugs in there or worse.

"Remember," Ella Mae went on, shaking a finger, their dark eyes meeting, "the Marches have took you in for charity."

Charity. Even Sister Marie had made that clear from the start. Our campanile, our statue of Mary - all gifts from Lydia March. You may think she has everything, but fortune is a two-edged sword. The Marches have given God a son and a baby girl. They will pay you four dollars a week.

The Marches' house smelled of must, camphor, lilacs, and decayed fish that wafted up from the beach at night. Located on the very tip of a crooked finger of land, it had the best view of all the houses on Beck's Point. Who Beck had been, no one seemed to remember, but one of the girls at the convent told Rachel it used to be a holy place where spirits dwelled and no one dared to live. Now it was chock full of summer houses, all white and lined up like pearls on a necklace.

Across the harbor, the town of Moss Village sat at the base of limestone bluffs, residue from an ancient, salty sea. Then came the glacier, molding and carving Lake Michigan like a totem of land, the Indians at the bottom, then the French, a smattering of Polish farmers, the priests, fur traders, fishermen, lumberjacks, and, later, the summer people.

And always the church. Even after the first one burned, the Jesuits built a second, then a third, its steeple rising above everything else. Next to it - a large lump of a brick building full of girls, some small, some older, all dark. All sent or left or brought by the nuns to learn American ways and to forget all things Indian. No more dancing to spirits with suspicious, tongue-twisting names. No more clothes of deerskin. Put the girls to work, and when they were big enough, some summer family - preferably Catholic - would take them. Beyond the tip of the point, the water widened into a bay, the trees and hills beyond the town of Chibawassee faint upon the opposite shore. From the southern edge, the bay extended west toward the horizon. To the north of Beck's Point was the harbor - docks and trimmed lawns, raked beaches, moored boats - the best port between Grand Traverse and Mackinaw. From every window, Rachel could see water, hear water, smell it, taste it. Not like Horseshoe Lake, which was small, tranquil, almost a pond.

"So much water," Rachel said to Ella Mae's daughter, who was helping her with the fruit. "Like the flood itself," said Mandy, who could not swim. "Gives me the heebie-jeebies." A girl had drowned once, she told Rachel. Years before. A girl from the convent.

"I know how to swim," said Rachel.

Today, they were helping Ella Mae make cherry pie. Ella Mae worked the flour into butter until her thick, brown arms were gloved with white. Rachel pitted the fruit. It was July, and the cherries brought up from Traverse City were at their best. The juice ran down her arms. Whenever Ella Mae looked away, the girl hungrily licked them. She was always hungry, even when her stomach was full. As a child, she had licked stones and dirt, ravenous for their minerals, as if she could consume the earth itself.

Mandy was watching her. "How old are you?"

"Sixteen," Rachel said, running her tongue around her lips. She was never quite sure.

"Sixteen? I thought you and me's the same age."

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen," said Mandy.

The air filled with sugar, butter, cherry. Because of the war, it had been hard to get butter these last few years. That and gasoline. Stockings. Things Rachel hadn't even known to miss.

"Chocolate," said Ella Mae, listing the rationed items. "Try to find that."

Ella Mae had taught Rachel to roll the chilled dough out thin and cut it so as to waste little. Rachel wadded up doughy crumbs and put them in her pocket to eat later. She wondered if Ella Mae would taste like chocolate if Rachel licked her. Same with Mandy and Jonah, Ella Mae's husband. Their skin was darker than hers, which was the color of milky cocoa. Outside, Mrs. March, her gray hair coiled on top of her head, pointed to the empty fishpond. Victor, the gardener followed her finger, shrugged. After the war, he seemed to be saying. After the war we will fill the pond with fish, the lake with boats, the house with laughter.

A guest was arriving that afternoon. "Before the war, we filled all five guest rooms," Ella Mae said. "The senator from Ohio stayed a week."

Mandy dipped into the bowl and swiped a cherry. Rachel almost reached out and touched Mandy's lips, they were so big and wide and black. Where'd you get those lips? she was about to ask, but Mandy spoke first, fingering Rachel's thick, black braids. "Where'd you get that hair?" she said. "I could make it better."

Rachel touched her hair. Unbraided, it curled down her spine and spoke of something not Indian. French, perhaps. The fur trader who had taken her grandmother as his common-law wife. "You're plain," Mandy said. "That nose of yours. Where'd you get that nose?"

Even Rachel had to admit her nose was different, not flat and squished like most Odawa's, but longer and beaked like a bird of prey.

"And your cheeks!" said Mandy. She blew out her own until they were rounder than the girl's.

Rachel looked at Mandy's head - twenty tiny braids to her own thick two. It had been so long since someone had touched her, combed her hair. In the churchyard there was a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Sometimes, the girl wanted to crawl right into Mary's arms, her face so sad like she knew she'd have to give her baby up.

Jesus died for your sins, the nuns told Rachel.

The Marches' daughter had died in the great influenza. There was an empty crib in one of the bedrooms, the curtains perpetually drawn. Had the Virgin Mary known her own sweet-faced son would die? Perhaps her own grief deafened her to Rachel's pleas to send her home to Horseshoe Lake.

"I wouldn't mind," Rachel said, letting Mandy touch her hair. Rachel's hands had grown sticky with cherries. Jesus bleeds for me, she thought as she picked up a towel, reddened it with her palms.


Excerpted from The Water Dancers by Terry Gamble
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Water Dancers 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Our local library reading club is here in the San Francisco Bay area, where the author of ¿The Water Dancers,¿ Ms Terry Gamble, resides. We were able to enlist her the other evening to join our review session covering her novel. It¿s too bad that most readers will never enjoy the good fortune of a somewhat informal chat with an author while discussing one of her recent works and how she goes about her craft. It provides a very different perspective. I first read ¿The Water Dancers¿ six months ago and recommended it to our reading club. In preparation for Ms Gamble¿s attendance, I gave the novel a second reading last week, which for me is always the ultimate test of a novel¿s real worth. During a second read do the characters still seem interesting and fresh? Does a rereading of the dialog provide new character insights? Are there elements of prose and style and structure that went unnoticed during the initial read because attentions were so fixed on plot points? And for this reader, ¿The Water Dancers¿ holds up as an exceptional novel, even with a second reading. Potential readers out there can gather the main plot points from any number of other reviews, so I won¿t bother to repeat them here. I only gave ¿The Water Dancers¿ four stars, but I¿m a hard grader. Most of the novels I pick up and read these days rate two or perhaps three stars, and often that¿s because I¿m feeling compassionate. One of the principle strengths of this novel is the way the Indian characters are drawn. I read a lot of novels covering the Native American cultures, and I¿ve grown more than tired of the patronizing way Indian characters always seem to be presented with extra sensory mystical insights into the religious beyond, and the supernatural powers to spot the Great White Buffalo stampeding across the distant plain. Terry Gamble¿s characters of Rachel Winnapee, Ben Winnapee and Honda Jackson act, talk and feel to the reader like real people experiencing and reacting to the real world. Two of the novel¿s most powerful scenes occur in the beginning and ending, when Rachel¿s grandmother and Lydia March appear to Rachel as ghost-like apparitions rising into the sky as they die in the flames of their burning houses. And yet these scenes did not feel to a reader like something from The X-Files. On the other hand, the white characters (with the exception of Ada and Bliss and Hank) seem so uniform in their physical, intellectual and emotional weaknesses that, for me, it becomes the principle shortcoming of the novel. At times the novel seems to incorporate the cliché that white people descended from wealth are evil by definition. By the end of the novel Ms Gamble is able to imbue some of these characters with more depth and understanding, but I wish she would have done it from the beginning. And then again, maybe that¿s just me. I loved that the sparse physical descriptions of the characters worked so well as a contrast to the detailed descriptions of all the surrounding physical geography. Ms Gamble¿s repeated descriptions of Rachel¿s hair as wild and ¿unbraided¿ was one of the subtle guides to our understanding of Rachel. But the real reason to pick up and read ¿The Water Dancers¿ is the prose. The writing within the novel is exceptional. Sentence structures are direct, rhythmic, paced, and always graceful. Those adjectives don¿t seem to fit together, but Terry Gamble¿s prose makes it all work. The novel was such an easy read that at the end you will need to stop and draw a breath to remind yourself just how good it was. Ms Gamble has another novel due out next year. So pick up ¿The Water Dancers¿ now, enjoy the read, and wait with baited breath like the rest of us for her upcoming novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this well-written and very readable book, author Terry Gamble presents a wonderful story that unfolds over a 25 year period. It begins during World War II when wealthy families from St. Louis would move for the summer to Northern Michigan, to enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan and the inland lakes. They would bring with them all of their social values, as well as their servants! Rachel Winnapee was a young Native American girl from the area who was hired by the March family to work as a 'charity case' servant at their summer home. She falls in love with the Marches' younger war-injured son, but their cultural and class differences make a long-term relationship impossible. As the story unfolds, Rachel struggles with her Native American identity and her own personal growth as a woman, a lover, and a mother. Good story -- I recommend it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Gamble's Water Dancers is an evocatively written, well-researched tale taking place in the years after World War II on the shores of Lake Michigan. Primarily the story of three characters -- a wounded war vet who is the son of a wealthy family, a young Native American employee of that family, and their son, Ben, the story describes life in wealthy summer communities where people of different classes come together, yet live far separate lives. Particularly well-portrayed is how loss and disillusionment can give way to new, redefined relationship with land, class and family. The contrast between native life and that of the moneyed summer class is quite well drawn, as are the sympathetic but unsparing portraits of the character