Blackwater by Michael McDowell
Thumbnail Review (no spoilers):
Blackwater is a familial saga that covers several generations of an influential family in Perdido, Alabama, during the first half of the twentieth century. A dusting of genre tropes folded into the mix, Blackwater is to Southern Gothic as John Crowley's Little, Big is to fantasy. It is languid, like its titular river, and the fantastic is woven into these lives, and is brutal, but the lives are the focus.
It is an odd book, and it is a 'horror adjacent' masterpiece. That said, a reader should know that this is not a horror novel, and I don't think it's the best place to start with McDowell. Readers unfamiliar with his work might find The Elementals an easier read before committing to Blackwater. If you enjoy the former, you're likely to adore the latter.
A book to get lost in. I loved it.
5 stars: One of my favorite books, ever.
Book Talk (Spoilers ahead!):
In Nathan Ballingrud's otherwise favorable introduction to Blackwater, he lodges this criticism:
"If there is a glaring flaw in the book, it's the short shrift the African-American characters are given. Ivey and Zaddie Sapp, Bray Sugarwhite, and others are all relegated to the background, only occasionally venturing forth to perform folk magic or to react to the actions of their white employers."
The black characters work the hardest, have the least autonomy, and are never more than maids, drivers, cooks. The short shrift is the thematic heart of the book and the narrative justification for the horror elements in an otherwise realist saga.
Why have a river monster live among this southern family? What does this serve in a book that is... not really about river monsters? And what are we to make of Ellinor, whom, beyond being a river monster who kills innocents and villains alike, also becomes a part of the Caskey family, a part of the wider community, a loving wife and mother?
What are we to make of a community that would allow such a being into its midst, with such ease?
Buster Sapp, a young African-American boy in the family's employ, is Elinor's first victim in the story. Ostensibly, he is killed when he sees her swimming in the confluence of the rivers, sees her true form. His death is senseless, unjust, and evil.
Buster was dutiful in his labor for the family and pursued Elinor out of concern for her life. Let us not forget Buster. His death, I'd suggest, is the keystone for understanding the rest of the book.
There are ghosts and creatures, weird events, and prophetic declarations, but most of the book is about family dynamics, sons and daughters pursuing independence, mothers vying for control. Their stories engage us. We recognize these people and like them. And..We become complicit in what is truly monstrous in Perdido, Alabama, through our love of these characters. Because that's part of the magic of the book: we come to empathize with the members of the Caskey family.
We believe in righteousness. In our own righteousness. But are there monsters in our midst? Do they fit with us as if they've found home and kin?
Elinor, early in the book, murders a child. And yet we spend much of Blackwater aligned with Elinor in her struggles with her mother-in-law, Mary-Love, and others.
Elinor, with her:
"...smile that was neither brave resignation nor studied indifference, but a smile that seemed to mock credence."
What a lovely line. What an amazing encapsulation of the character.
This monster crawls out of the muck of the river to live with this family, to marry, to have children, to ascend as matriarch. In the story's sum, her pursuits are prosaic, if writ larger than most. She builds her prosperity as anyone would: through hard work, partnerships, savvy, and luck. But Elinor lives a charmed life because she is of the river. She knows the land and has access to powers the mortals she walks among do not. And she's happy to use this privilege.
It's not that she doesn't think others should act in their best interest, but she'll get hers first.
She's... horrible. But we root for her. We're, more often than not, on her side.
McDowell created a juxtaposition for us to ponder. Elinor is a monster. Elinor is all these other things, besides. What are the Caskeys? What are we missing?
We lost sight of the people crushed under the weight of this family. Given, in a phrase, short shrift.
We forgot about Buster.
"No trace of Buster was ever discovered, but no one expected it to be otherwise."
In lesser fiction, evil is heavy breathing behind a shiny black mask, or a cackling hag over witch's brew. In Blackwater, we follow generation after generation of family members whom we relate to, despise, mourn, and hope for. They're not evil. They're just people. Right? They're just living their lives. They're of their time. Right?
"Miss Elinor," said Zadie, "I have grown up in this house. I have never lived anywhere else. I am gone grow old here, I guess. I have never got married. I have never had anything to do with colored men, 'cause I belong to you."
"You're mine," Elinor assented.
"And living in this house," said Zadie, "I've seen things and I've heard things. But that don't mean I pay much attention. All I know is I belong to you, and I'm gone grow old here waiting on you and yours."
This is among the most dialog we get from Zadie in eight-hundred-plus pages, and it is in counterpoint to Buster, whose job she took on after his demise.
Buster's fate is cruel; Zadie's is soul crushing. And telling.
Because though she has 'seen things and heard things' the supernatural is not what has taken from her. No, it is this culture into which the Sapp family brings their children. It is their service to the Caskey family that has taken so much. It is the cultural context in which this great malignancy inflicted upon the Sapp family is the best option going.
Bray, who accompanies Oscar at the start of the book and acts as his chauffeur throughout his life, dies and Oscar laments not having a Sapp to drive him. He has other men from the mill to do the job, but he gets Sammy Sapp, who is in eleventh grade and has his driver's license, to quit school and work for him as his driver. Sammy got a uniform and Oscar bought a Lincoln Continental 'in his honor.'
Evil doesn't cackle over a cauldron. Evil is pleasant, accommodating, avuncular.
Later, Oscar has this exchange with Zadie:
"Mr. Wallace," Oscar declared, "Is coming down hard on your people. Don't you think you and I better send Sammy up there with a letter or something and ask him to ease up a little bit?"
"You write the letter," Said Zadie, "and I will pay for Sammy's gas."
"Are you looking for equality, Zadie?" Oscar asked, with a little of his old high-flown courtliness.
"Equality with what, Mr. Oscar? Equality with who?"
The exchange goes on and Oscar suggests Zadie could run for mayor, but when Zadie counters by asking who would read the paper to him every day, he recants and says she should:
"...give up this idea of politics."
Ballingrud is correct in the short shrift given the black characters in Blackwater. It's not a fault of the telling. It's the thematic point of the book. A supernatural monster in their midst fails to overshadow the evil that holds families like the Sapps in its thrall. What does it speak of us, fellow reader, if we find ghosts and creatures more frightening than we find the Caskeys?
My first book read in 2022 is Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi and it led me to write this commentary on Blackwater. They are unique books, but if this take on Blackwater resonates with you, check out Riot Baby. It is quite good and equally thought-provoking.