Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden

Friday, October 19, 2012


Gathering of Waters
Hemmingway didn't move to retrieve the bowl of hot cereal until the slapping sound of Doll's house slippers had faded away. At the table, she spooned up a large helping of the cereal and brought it to her open mouth.

Good thing she smelled the turpentine before she ate it, or this story might have ended here.

In Mississippi, in a town called Money, five year old Doll's mother makes a horrifying discovery - that her daughter is possessed by the spirit of Esther, a prostitute who died years ago. Attempts to exorcise the spirit fail as Esther manages to assert her malicious presence, while trying to seduce the men of the town. A number of men fall for her charms, but when disaster strikes one day in the form of a hurricane, Doll dies but Esther manages to move to another person - a white boy doomed to commit a horrific murder one day.

Bernice McFadden is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. I first read one of her books - Sugar - couple of years back, and quickly followed it with Glorious. I remember enjoying both books tremendously, especially the writing within the books. Gathering of Waters is just as eloquent, although not as powerful.

In her latest book, McFadden explores the idea that spirits never die but instead continue to live on, in different persons, animals or non-living things, like storms. In the first half, we see Doll acting as if possessed by Esther. Even as a child, she is very promiscuous, and some of the acts that the author describes are sexually-creepy! When Doll's mother leaves the girl with the pastor, she manages to corrupt him as well (although it should be said that he allowed himself to be corrupted - you cannot blame consensual acts on one person). When his wife leaves him, he goes back into the house to sleep with the girl, who he helped bring up. A few years later, she becomes his wife and bears him two children.

The first half of the book focuses on Doll's actions, while the second half focuses on the ramifications of what she does in the first half. Through most of the book, there is only one observer who is able to see Esther's presence in specific beings - the town of Money itself, who is the narrator. This narrator chronologically, focuses on three women throughout the story - Doll, her daughter Hemmingway, and eventually, Hemmingway's daughter, Tass. Occasionally, the story digresses to introduce other minor characters who have connections to these three women. While, ordinarily I would have frowned at this lengthy introduction to minor characters, I found that it worked here because the narrator is the town that gets to see everything.

Just as in Glorious, McFadden revolves fictional events and characters around actual historical events - in this case, the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. I enjoyed reading her fictional take on this incident and how she wrapped up some loose ends and brought different storylines together. At the time of the murder, Emmett and Tass fancied each other. Emmett's death upsets Tass so much that she never recovers from it - it is interesting to see how Esther is still the primary force behind the incident.

Despite how much I enjoyed reading this book, more than once I felt unsure of the direction the story was moving toward. I can't say I still understood the point of the book - it was not purely about Esther because she was mostly absent in the second half of the book except when she was terrorizing the people. She takes second seat in the second half as the characters her actions were intertwined with began making their presence known. The transition between the two halves didn't feel smooth to me, but almost as if the story in the first half was forgotten. In the same vein, the transition from Esther to Hemmingway to Tass is done so subtly that I didn't miss the previous character but eagerly awaited the new one. There is also more than a fair amount of sex and lust in the book, some of which seemed a tad unnecessary.

Despite the disappointment, I enjoyed my time with Gathering of Waters, and especially reading McFadden's lovely writing. There are several themes explored in this book - injustice against the African-Americans in civil rights issues, the difference in outlook among the African-Americans who lived in Mississippi and those who lived in Chicago, and the lack of women rights and freedom. Although this isn't my favorite book by this author, I think it is a good work nevertheless.

I borrowed this book from the library.


4 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I really like McFadden's writing as well, but gosh, you have to steel up to read her stories! So much pain! But so powerful!

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

I remember your praise of McFadden's other books. This one sounds a little disturbing to me.

softdrink said...

I don't know that I've ever read an exorcism book (heck, I've managed to avoid the movie all these years!). Although it does sound like that's an itty-bitty part of the story.

Vasilly said...

This book sounds so creepy! I think I'll pass on this one and try Sugar instead.