Daddy said the land’s soaked into me the way blood soaks into wood, a permanent, everlasting mark. Three years ago, when I was nine, he placed an old willow branch into my hands, and showed me how to do what he’d been doing since I can remember, something he calls “divining water”. Turned out I could do this too.
It is the 1950’s in North Carolina and Martha “Sonny” Creech works side by side with her father and brothers on their cotton farm. No one loves the land as much as Sonny and her father, despite the fact that most girls are meant for ‘softer’ more lady-like skills. Living on the cotton farm with her brothers Ross and Trent (a teen with a wild streak who hates farming), Sonny and her father have a special bond, both soaked to their marrow with their love of the land. It had all felt perfect, as long as they could farm and be a family until tragedy strikes and her father dies. That’s when Frank Fowler falls over her family like a dark shadow, with an offer that to the Creech siblings feels more like a deal with the devil.
Why can’t her Mamma see the real Frank, rather than the sly, charming man he pretends to be in her presence. How could her brother Trent be so accepting and chummy with him? No one understands Sonny more than her best friend Daniel, unlike the other boys, ‘different’, smart as a whip with big dreams of one day being a director. Such fancy ideals aren’t to be tolerated in a town like theirs, and Frank will bully every sign of weakness he witnesses in Daniel and the Creech siblings. For her mother’s sake, Sonny has to try to keep the peace, Frank is their salvation, their only chance to escape ruin. Daniel in all his wisdom, with the experience of knowing men’s desires watching his own mother as she entertains them, understands exactly what Frank wants from Sonny’s mamma. Surely her mother would never sully her father’s memory by taking up with a tyrant like Frank? What can a twelve-year-old girl do but obey her elders, as she was raised to?
Both Daniel and Sonny suffer the cruelty of other children for their odd ways yet in Daniel’s case, it’s the adults that are the biggest threat. For Sonny it’s her water diving skills, a gift she inherited, one she shared and was nurtured by her father. As her peers mock and call her ‘water witch’, her attempts at finding water hurt her more when Frank derides her for thinking her ‘gift’ isn’t real anymore than her father’s was. She’s just a girl in his eyes, and girls have no power, don’t belong taking part in any ‘man’s work’. There is an undercurrent of anything feminine as weakness, particularly if witnessed in boys. I also felt early in the novel when Daniel meets his sister at the bus stop, eyeing Sarah’s clothes Sonny starts to think about what it means to wear tight things and have a ‘reputation’, which absolutely expresses the thinking of the 1950’s, still true today to an extent.The author says a lot about our culture back then, just in that word “reputation”, a brand a small town girl could never wash off. When Frank isn’t bullying her siblings and best friend he spends his time insulting her father and how he handled his farming, a man who is no longer alive to defend himself. It isn’t long before he insinuates himself even deeper into her family, sitting at their dinner table but Sonny could never foretell the evil that beats in his bigoted heart. His calculated schemes culminate into an act so vile that keeping secrets for her mother’s sake may cost them their very humanity.
This is a dark, heavy novel that explores silence and power, those who have it and those who don’t. There is nothing so helpless as being a child, at the mercy of the grown ups, your very first leaders. Second to that vulnerable state, being a woman. At the start, the Creech children know a father who is tender, who teaches them values and is hard only when necessary because farming requires attention to detail and hard-work. A father who loves his children and treats his beloved wife with respect, a man his children can be proud of. All of that changes with his death, and with three children to feed, a farm to save and very few options their mother has to accept the only deal on offer. That’s how the world sometimes works for us, backed into a corner and you do what you can to survive. Often it’s too late when you discover the truth of the person you thought was your salvation. Sonny’s mother and Daniel’s both lack choices, and let’s think about Daniel, he is fodder for Frank because he lacked the protection of a father, or siblings. He also carries the burden of his mother’s choices, her alcholism (in the 1950’s for a woman to drink was considered far more deviant than a man who was a drunk), shouldering shame for a father who walked out when he was a baby and rather than empathy finds only contempt.
Too, the times have an enormous influence on our decisions and options. Women weren’t exactly in full control of their destiny in the 1950’s anymore than children were. Anyone who was ‘different’ or didn’t fall into line was more than just ridiculed, makes you understand why certain people were chomping at the bit to escape their small towns. Not every citizen accepted bigotry and bullying, nor were as small minded as Frank but when you could find your life at threat, the safety of your family, you knew to keep your mouth shut tight and if you didn’t, you would pay. Some people thrive on love, others on rage and hatred but it all catches up to you, doesn’t it? I think we ‘modern folks’ tend to judge people of the past under the safety and freedom of our own times. No one is going to beat you to near death for defending someone or having an opinion for the most part, unfortunately back then they could and the those meant to protect could be a part of the corruption. This novel exposes the uglier side of a small town in the 1950’s. Read the Author’s Note at the end, it’s worth your time. Disturbing and honest, yes read it.
Publication Date:January 29, 2019