The Watery Part of the Worldby Michael Parker
Michael Parker’s vast and involving novel about pirates and slaves, treason and treasures, madness and devotion, takes place on a tiny island battered by storms and cut off from the world. Inspired by two little-known moments in history, it begins in 1813, when Theodosia Burr, en route to New York by ship to meet her father, Aaron Burr, disappears off the
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Michael Parker’s vast and involving novel about pirates and slaves, treason and treasures, madness and devotion, takes place on a tiny island battered by storms and cut off from the world. Inspired by two little-known moments in history, it begins in 1813, when Theodosia Burr, en route to New York by ship to meet her father, Aaron Burr, disappears off the coast of North Carolina. It ends a hundred and fifty years later, when the last three inhabitants of a remote island—two elderly white women and the black man who takes care of them—are forced to leave their beloved spot of land. Parker tells an enduring story about what we’ll sacrifice for love, and what we won’t.
The outer banks of North Carolina is the setting for two darkly linked tales spanning 150 years, both inspired by real-life events: the disappearance of disgraced former vice president Aaron Burr's daughter after her ship is battered by a storm off the Carolina coast—and possibly taken over by pirates—and the evacuation of a tiny island by its last three townspeople, including two elderly female descendents of Theodosia Burr Alston.
Theo, as she is known, is on her way to New York in 1813 to visit her father, whom she is determined to clear of treason charges, when fate intervenes. In Parker's visionary, feverish telling, she washes up on a beach where a hermit called Old Whaley nurses her to health, builds her a shelter and ultimately becomes her partner. Many decades later, in the 1970s, her great-great-great-great grandchildren, Maggie and Whaley, are looked after by Woodrow Thornton, a black man who lost his wife to Hurricane Wilma. Out of his commitment to the women, and out of guilt for leaving his beloved Sarah on the island the day of the storm while he did business on the mainland, he has refused to abandon the hurricane zone like so many others. The mainland has long been cursed for Maggie, whose obsession with a younger man who abandoned her led her into madness when she pursued him. The long shadow of slavery adds haunting resonance to this powerful, lyrically penetrating novel, the title of which has as much to do with the liquidity of history, identity and storytelling as it does with oceans and storms. Parker invokes magic as well as mystery in exploring the ways the past not only haunts the present but in some ways anticipates it. Like Faulkner and O'Connor, Parker creates a place of beauty and complexity which, in the end, one is reluctant to leave.
A vividly imagined historical tale of isolated lives.
The Washington Post
“Parker slices open each isolated life with humor and gentleness, and the familiar battles with loss and loneliness he chronicles makes even this remotest of locations feel close to home.”People
“Parker slices open each isolated life with humor and gentleness, and the familiar battles with loss and loneliness he chronicles make even this remotest of locations feel close to home.”
—People, 4-star review
“I found The Watery Part of the World all but impossible to put down . . . This elegantly written tale reflects on the nature of race, love, regret, dependence, fear, sorrow, honor and envy—the eternal challenges of being human. The characters, even the minor ones, are fully formed, the setting is so vividly described that you feel you know it intimately, and Parker’s writing is purely wonderful.” —Nancy Pearl, NPR.org
“A lush feat of historical speculation . . . Disparate parts—pirates and aristocrats in one century; elderly ladies and their handyman in another . . . But Parker has managed to stir them together in a vivid tale about the tenacity of habit and the odd relationships that form in very small, difficult places.”
—The Washington Post
“A remarkable story . . . The entire novel has a blue-green, underwater feel, a timeless forgetfulness.”
—Los Angeles Times
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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THE WATERY PART of the WORLDa novel
By MICHAEL PARKER
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2011 Michael Parker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTheodosia Burr Alston
Nag's Head, North Carolina
THE DAY WHALEY CAME for her she had spent among the live oaks, huddling and shivering in the squalls of frigid rain. The low tight trees provided tolerable canopy, yet eventually the driving rain came at her sideways. No protection from its furious winds. The coast brought out the worst in rain. What a few miles inland would have been restorative, replenishing, here seemed unutterably desperate. The hues, or, rather, hue, of the landscape exacerbated the loneliness, for everything turned the dun color of wet sand. Even the dull green of the live-oak leaves. Especially the roiling ocean.
Hours in the wet sand. She knew she needed to rouse herself and stroll the beach, for that was where they would be searching for her, the party her father would have sent to rescue her, but she could not summon the strength to abandon her paltry shelter. Her shivering turned the supplications she repeated into stutter. But her father heard. Late in the day he came to sit with her. He covered her in blankets, pulled dry wood from a satchel. He made her a cup of tea. Cakes and fresh strawberries. Don't speak, child, he said when she tried to form syllables unbroken by shiver, tried to tell him how she had come to be abandoned on this island: how the ship she'd boarded in Charleston to visit him in New York hit high wind and rough water off the Outer Banks of North Carolina; how she'd left her maidservant retching below deck and made her way topside to find even the captain ashen and unsettled; how, through the wind-slanted rain, Theo had spied a blinking, had pointed to the ship and they'd made for it, only it wasn't a ship but a lantern tied to the head of a nag by thieves luring ships to the shallows; how, when Theo was brought above deck by the men who boarded the ship and presented to their leader, Daniels, she had refused to let go of the portrait she had brought along to present to her father upon his return from exile in Europe; how the woman in the portrait had spoken to her and how she had spoken back to the woman, who was no longer a reasonable likeness of her but her protector and savior; how she had screamed her name, her father's name, what stray phrases entered her head: I do not love my husband the governor I am the empress of Mexico not a ship at all but the head of a nag; how Daniels, disturbed by her outburst, had deemed her "touched by God," and spared her life. How this was the moment Theodosia Burr Alston died, and the woman who spent her days scouring the beaches for the glint of a bottle, a sheet of parchment curled within, her father's beautifully slanted hand visible beneath the sea-clouded glass, was less born than unsheathed, for who was she all along but a fraud incapable of the simplest virtues.
She explained none of this to her father because he would not let her speak. Every time she tried he shushed her and drew the blanket tighter around her body. The fire caught and crackled as he fed it. Never before had she been so comforted by such an essential element as fire.
He said, finally: It's a pity, the way the world treats its most vigilant servants. Both of us end up exiled from the things we love. Sent to some purgatory where we are doomed to hide who we really are.
She asked why.
Oh Theo, it's not for me to answer why such hardships occur in the world.
No, why us? Why is this happening to us? What did we do to deserve this? For surely we provoked it?
You speak as if we're such great sinners, he said. The fire was dying down. His voice was as cold and gray as the ocean twisting and crashing in the distance.
Father, she said, but he was gone, as was his fire, the warm mug of cinnamon-spiced tea.
In his place hovered the other island ward. Old Whaley, he was called. On his knees in the wet sand, one hand holding back a branch. She blinked, as if this would make him disappear. But he was even more present when she opened her eyes.
They watched each other. Rain dripped off their noses, their chins. Theo had seen him only a few times, always in the distance: moving over a dune, disappearing into a copse. He lived alone in a lean-to in a wood by the sound. A hermit, he sold his catch or traded it for sugar, coffee, his few store-bought needs. Mostly he survived on what he scavenged. He looked like it—rail thin, skin the ghastly gray-white of a fish belly. His beard was a tangle. Yet nothing could dampen his eyes, which were vivid blue beacons.
"Come with me now, miss," said Whaley. She realized, staring at him, that he was a lot younger than most who called him Old Whaley.
Since he too was a ward, did that mean she had to keep up her pretense around him?
Just in case, she fell back on her failsafe silence.
Whaley shrugged. "You want to stay here? Out in this mess? It's set in now."
He raised his shoulders again, no shrug this time, but a respectful acknowledgment of the heavens—perhaps of the God whose touch damned and saved the both of them. Theo could only acknowledge the irony of God's touch determining her fate. Her faith was Sabbath faith, and her lack of devotion if made known to even one other person or even fully admitted in her heart would have filled her great-grandfather Jonathan Edwards with ire and shame. God was the one thing lacking in her rigorously modern and masculine education, since her father, the son and grandson of preachers, had replaced the Calvinist dogma of his youth with freethinking Greeks and Romans after reading Mary Wollstonecraft and deciding his daughter should be educated as he had been, minus the scripture.
"It'll not likely let up anytime soon," said Old Whaley.
She looked past him at the screen of rain.
"I don't have much but it's dry."
She spoke before she could stop herself. "Do you have a fire?"
He smiled. She saw his brown chiseled teeth and thought of food and of a place to stay for more than a few nights. For months they had moved her around the island, sheltered her in shacks and sound-side cottages. The families who had been ordered to take her in all but ignored her. Mostly she ate what would have been slopped in those households lucky enough to own a few pigs. If she was lucky, she got salt fish, biscuits, tack. Vegetables were dreamed. Fantasies of fresh ears of corn slick with hot butter, salt-studded. What a thing to dream, given all her thousand wants, yet there it was in front of her, slowly spinning, golden with promise as a rising sun.
"Yes. I have a fireplace." He nodded and scooted out backward. Beyond the thin shelter of her live oak, he turned and waited. But she hesitated. She'd been talking to her father and blinked awake to find Old Whaley. Therefore this Whaley was a figment. What awaited her should she follow was surely worse than a few more frigid hours beneath her tree.
"Come on then," he said. "Let's get you next to that fire."
She shook her head no.
"You'll die out here," he said. She watched the wisps his words made. What was language but steam? Better not to speak at all than to waste precious breath in a dissipating cloud.
Old Whaley went away. Her father did not return. Only Theo and the wind, rain-laden, unrelenting, determined to take both her and island apart.
Excerpted from THE WATERY PART of the WORLD by MICHAEL PARKER Copyright © 2011 by Michael Parker. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Parker is the author of seven works of fiction, most recently the critically acclaimed novel The Watery Part of the World. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and many other magazines. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and three lifetime achievement awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature. He teaches in the MFA writing program at UNC–Greensboro and lives in North Carolina and Texas.
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To me, The Watery Part of the World is the perfect book. I could go on and on with praise for Parker's well-drawn characters and the way that setting serves as one, too; the lyricism and pacing of his lines to conjure the torrent of the rain and winds, of human emotions, the flatness of them, too; and the depths to which the story mines the contrariness and secrets of the heart and mind, but I'll stop here because you best read the book and see what I mean. But I must go on to say that this is my favorite novel since the 2003 publication of The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and I believe that Parker, like Jones, is one of best writers in this country.
A very well written book, interesting structure, but so overwhelmingly dark that I had a hard time reading to the end. Classic Southern dysfunctional family, delusions of grandeur, people shouting at one another and no one really communicating.
Michael Parker's hauntingly beautiful novel, The Watery Part Of The World, tells the story of one of North Carolina's barrier islands, Yaupon Island. A tiny strip of sand between the ocean and the sound, it serves as the land's first break in the water; a tough land where survival demands the same toughness from its inhabitants. The novel moves in time between the early 1800's to the present. The earlier time is the story of the island's first inhabitants; shipwreck survivors, pirates, fishermen and slaves. Among these is Theodosia Burr Alston, an aristocrat. Daughter of the Vice-President, Aaron Burr and wife of Joseph Alston, the governor of South Carolina, she is brought to the island where her ship is wrecked by pirates. She survives with the help of Whaley, a man who fights for her release by the outlaws and takes her as his wife. She lives out her life in this new environment, unsure that her former privileged life had ever really existed. Fast forward to the future. After decades when the island thrived as a tight community, it has dwindled down to three people. Theodosia and Maggie Whaley are the great-great-great-granddaughters of Theodosia and Whaley. Woodrow Thornton is the descendant of the slave that Whaley bought and freed and who lived out his life on the island. Woodrow takes care of the two white women, even at the expense of his own life. Woodrow is married and he and Sarah have a large family. Over the years, all drift off to the mainland, but Woodrow refuses to leave his responsibility to the Whaley women, even when Sarah dies. Parker has written a book that explores the ties that people have to specific landscapes and places; how the land can shape lives and the relationships that grow there. It is a grand mixture of love and duty, of the relationship between black and white people in the South, of the toughness and will to survive, of an old culture whose vestiges remain. This is not the 'beach' of tourists and gaudiness; it is the coast, stripped down to the mechanisms of survival and the love that allows people to survive there. This book is highly recommended to all readers who want to understand one of the cultures of North Carolina. Michael Parker is a professor in the MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
A beautiful read
I was excited to find a not-romance pirate adventure, but found myself reading what was basically a character study of two generations of two different families: the first and last to live on an island near one that was once lorded over by a pirate. The pirate does make one or two appearances in the book, but it mainly focused around a young woman who was spared by the pirate, her unexpected love interest, her 3x great granddaughters and a freed slave and his descendent. All of the characters are difficult to like, especially the three women, who are greedy and self-important. It wasn't a horrible read, but it certainly wasn't true to the description. Not something I'd have read had I known what it was truly about.
Can't put it down!
When I read the overview this book was something that caught my intrest. Well, It ended there... The first chapter was so boring I couldn't get past it. The best part of the book was the overview.