Monday, August 13, 2012

Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden

I'm nervous about reviewing this book. I'll just say that up front. Halfway through the book, I emailed a dear friend and told her I had no clue how to review this book because it was both completely beautiful and so horribly disturbing at the same time. It also dealt with issues that I take personal issue with that others accept as part of their lives. How do I walk that line in reviewing a book as complex as this, yet so beautifully, simply presented?

Here, let me give you a sample of some of Ms. McFadden's gorgeous writing in the first couple of pages to show you how quickly and how easily it was for me to fall under her spell:

"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."
And that is who tell's us this entrancing tale, the town itself of Money, Mississippi. It's quite a broad scope of a story that takes place over a short just over 250 pages. It's a tale of multiple generations of an African American family living in the deep rural south, starting in 1900 when segregation was still very much a part of every day life all the way through to 2005.

I was disturbed by the beginning of the book. In fact it shocked me. I'd heard of Bernice McFadden, but had never read any of her books. And I was hit hard by the child sexual abuse that's presented in it's opening chapters that's blamed on an evil spirit of a whore name Esther that's entered a young girl's body that draws men to her, even the reverend who takes her in when her own mother abandons her. This spirit, Esther, is a connecting being that's used to bring us through the generations of the families who's tales we learn in this book.

As I continued to read though, I started to become less disturbed and started to see that this is a book of African American history. A book of African American history in the south through the eyes of one group of people told through the truly awful things that happen to them and through some of the little glimmers of smiles and traditions that we see.

Here's where I debate whether I go further into things and stir things up. Maybe I'll put my toes in the water. I've always been fascinated with certain parts of spiritual and cultural history of African American people. Specifically when it comes to the belief in the spirit of a person. Of course, living in New Orleans, I can find a voodoo shop on every corner, but they're mostly tourist attractions. There are a few places, however, that you can go into where they will give you some of the true roots of Vodou and the history behind it and it just fascinates me so much.

The south has deep roots in spirituality regardless of race. The idea of a spirit possessing someone is still not something that's all that bizarre. I work with a woman who happens to be African American who still practices exorcisms on people and she will tell you some stories that she swears by. But that's where I have a problem and I guess that's where I had a bit of a problem with the book. I understand that these are not necessarily Ms. McFadden's beliefs, but it upset me so much to see Doll (the girl I mentioned who was possessed by Esther), beaten multiple times, and then sexually used multiple times as a minor because she was "possessed" by a whore. And it became her fault that these things happened to her, not the other way around.

But as I'm typing this, I see how McFadden even developed this as the book went on. As Esther possesses other people during different time periods, people start to become more responsible for their own personal reactions. There is a growth, an evolution shown there.

Another favorite passage that sort of sent shivers up my spine which presents the central theme of this book....I'll leave you with this:

"Listen, if you choose to believe nothing else that transpires here, believe this: your body does not have a soul; your soul has a body, and souls never, ever die."


Debi said...

Wow, this does sound disturbing and heartbreaking and beautiful all at the same time. And I think you did a wonderful job of writing this, Chris.

Bookfool said...

Oh, wow, that sounds really upsetting. I don't know that I can buy into a child being possessed at all. It's such a horrible way to look at abuse. Children are the innocents, in my mind.

I agree with Debi. Beautifully written review.