To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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Gathering of Waters - Bernice L. McFadden Since I finished this book, it has haunted me.

As I move through my day, images, phrases, characters, tensions, joys, and sorrows from Gathering of Waters sneak up on me when I least expect them. This is probably only fitting, as McFadden presents in her novel a multi-generational story, told by the town of Money, Mississippi (yes, by the town), that seamlessly combines beautifully clear and elegantly simple descriptions of everyday life among black families living in Money, with incandescently beautiful examinations of the spiritual elements of these families’ lives. Throughout, McFadden focuses on the human spirit, love and hatred, good and evil, and the ways in which souls can transcend the ravages of racism, hatred, fear, and evil.

From the time you open the cover and take in the novel’s opening lines, you know you are reading a special book:

“I am Money. Money Mississippi.
“I have had many selves and have been many things. My beginning was not a conception, but the result of a growing, stretching, and expanding, which took place over thousands of years.
“I have been figments of imaginations, shadows and sudden movements seen out of the corner of your eye. I have been dewdrops, falling stars, silence, flowers, and snails.
“For a time, I lived as a beating heart, another life found me swimming upstream toward a home nestled in my memory. Once, I was a language that died. I have been sunlight, snowdrifts, and sweet babies’ breath. But today, however, for you and for this story, I am Money. Money Mississippi.” (12)

McFadden introduces significant key themes in these opening paragraphs. A central concept in the novel is animism, the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and the material world, that souls are contained in plants, rocks, water, as well as in humans, and that souls can pass from generation to generation in different hosts. This belief system provides a thematic framework for the novel, generating not only tensions and conflicts across generations, but also strong ties to places, to people, to spirits moving among us. There’s a true sense of people being part of a place, of an integrity and wholeness lying beneath the appearance that human existence is fleeting. This sense of connection is profound throughout the novel.

McFadden also develops Gathering of Waters with two key historical anchors: The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, and the murder of Emmett Till in the summer of 1955. Both events were devastating events, and both are tied to racism. That connection may seem clearer in the case of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered at the age of 14 by white racists, who alleged that Emmett had whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi. Emmett’s body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River and later discovered, leading to a sensational trial, at which the defendants were acquitted. In spite of this miscarriage of justice, the extensive media coverage of the event brought the serious consequences of racism to the attention of the American public. The murder was one of many events leading to the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Great Flood of 1927 is another catastrophic event in US history that reveals the racism at the heart of American society. The flood disproportionately harmed the black communities living on the Mississippi delta, as they were not protected by government flood control policies, which were developed with big banks and industrial powers in minds. Levees themselves were first built by slaves, and later by black convicts and work gangs. (Black work gangs also were forced at gunpoint to reinforce levees as the waters rose during the floods of 1927.) In addition, local authorities along the Mississippi River had ensured that black communities were segregated into less desirable locations, including areas most likely to flood. Once the floods started, local authorities concentrated their resources on rescuing white families, leaving blacks to fend for themselves. Refugee camps were segregated, and the ones designated for blacks were poorly provisioned and rife with disease. (For more details, please see Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.)

McFadden works these historical events into the fabric of her story, providing clear historical context for readers. The power in the novel, though, stems just as much, if not more, from McFadden’s beautiful descriptions of everyday life for the Hilson family, as it does from dramatic historical events. This is a story about the complex relationships and tensions passing from generation to generation, heightened by the brutal inequities of a racist society. At the same time, though, I was left with a strong sense of the salvation to be found in love, which also passes over time and space. McFadden’s incandescent prose underscores the wonder of first love, “To Tass, Emmett was everywhere and present in all things. He was all over her mind, pressed into the seams between the floorboards, glowing amidst the stars, and there in the sweet swirl of sugar, milk, and butter in her morning bowl of farina." (156) We see the love of true friends, outlasting time and distance. We share in the concerned (and sometimes exasperated) affection of adult children for their mother. And, most dramatically, in the novel’s climactic ending, we are left with a moving, and magical, example of the transcendence and timelessness of love.

This is a beautifully written novel, which embraces the magic of everyday life, and celebrates the permanence of souls. This is an important novel, for the ways in which it provides a perspective on America’s difficult past, while providing a way to understand past, present, and future, not in abstract terms, but in the most human terms possible. This is a novel that I hope you read, and hold close to you, and pass on to others.

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