Gathering of Waters By Bernice L. McFadden Akashic Books. 252 pp. $24.95, $15.95 paperback
Reviewed by Jackie Jones
The story of Emmett Till is a hard read for anyone. The tragic histories of the families — black and white — leading up to that horrific episode are not for the faint of heart, but Bernice L. McFadden's novel, Gathering of Waters, pulls you into the story,
The tale, narrated by the town of Money, Miss. — where Till was murdered — is a mix of historical fact and imagined orchestration by a bedeviling spirit that controls the minds and behavior of the characters.
Till, a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago, had been spending the summer of 1955 with a family in the small Delta town of Money. He was kidnapped, beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River by two white men and left to die because he allegedly whistled at a white woman outside the general store.
As McFadden tells it, Till wasn't whistling at the woman, but whistling at her request.
A few days before, he and his cousins had gone to the grocery store owned by Roy Bryant and his 21-year-old wife, Carolyn, and a jar of pickles caught his eye. "After a moment of close examination, he swiped his hand across his forehead and let off a long, shrill whistle. 'Those are some gargantuan pickles!'?"
Carolyn remembered the whistle when Till and his cousins returned to the store to buy a treat:
"They were just a few strides away from the store and already licking furiously on their ice pops when Carolyn Bryant stepped out onto the porch, pulled her chestnut hair off of her shoulders, and wrapped it into a loose knot.
"Their easy laughter floated over to her and raised a smile to her lips. Maybe that's why she called out to him, because he was young and carefree and she missed that part of her life.?…?Perhaps the sight of the group of young people immersed in play and not work or marriage made her nostalgic for her own days of freedom.?…
"So after tying her hair into a knot, Carolyn skipped out into the road, cupped her hands around her mouth and hollered, 'Hey! Do that whistle for me again, would you?'
"And he did and the sound made Carolyn happy, it made her feel included in something free and forbidden."
Three days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the home of Till's great-uncle Moe Wright, where the youth was staying, roused the boy from his bed at gunpoint, and abducted him. Three days later, his mangled body was found in the Tallahatchie River, near Money.
The subsequent decision by Till's mother to hold an open-casket funeral, "so the world can see what those men down in Mississippi did to my boy," helped to galvanize the civil rights movement and shape public opinion on the nation's race crisis. Till's killers, however, were acquitted. The men, protected against further prosecution because of the law against double jeopardy, later admitted to a reporter they had, indeed, killed the youth.
It is that summer of youth, love, and tragedy that is the heart of Gathering of Waters.
McFadden walks the reader through the complicated twists and turns of love, hatred, and race relations — the human condition as it existed in the Mississippi Delta from 1900 until the last decade of the 20th century.
It begins with the story of Doll, a girl possessed by the angry spirit of Esther Gold, a dead whore who in life had seen her loving personality shredded by a series of abusive lovers. After exorcism fails to drive Esther out, the girl's mother puts her up for adoption and Doll is taken in by the Rev. August Hilston and his family. Things go along just fine for a few years, until the spirit drives Doll to seduce the minister and destroy nearly everyone she comes across. She marries Rev. Hilson and vacillates between being the proper wife of a clergyman and a wanton woman who sleeps with other men seemingly on a whim.
Doll is emotionally estranged from her daughter Hemmingway, who has become aware of her mother's volatility. When she goes to confront her mother at the home of another man, the three are trapped in the attic of the man's home as the levees upriver give way and the Mississippi floods the town.
"Feeling scared and powerless, Hemmingway did what any child would have done in that situation: 'Mommy,' she said, and reached for Doll's hand.
"Doll Hilson looked down at her daughter's hand and began to laugh.?…?The house lurched; Doll swayed and shrieked with terror as she grappled to clamp hold of the very hand she'd just rejected.
"Hemmingway swiftly pulled her hand from Doll's reach."
Doll is swept away in the waters of Great Flood of 1927, the worst in the nation's history.
It is Hemingway's daughter, Tass, who ultimately meets and falls in love with Till during the summer of 1955.
Tass Hilson and her best friend Padagonia Tucker live just up the road from Moe Wright, the great-uncle with whom Till is staying. Tass is immediately smitten, but it takes Till a little longer to really see Tass as a potential girlfriend. "He was brown and stout with full cheeks and a generous belly that jiggled when he laughed. His ears were long and the lobes were curved upward. He wasn't anything Padagonia would look at, but Tass was head over heels."
Tass and Padagonia accompany Till and his cousins to Bryant's grocery store. By then, Till has taken a liking to Tass, but proceeds with unaccustomed caution. After Carolyn Bryant's invitation to Till to whistle, the kids are headed home when Padagonia urges Till and Tass to kiss and "get it over with already!"
"Tass would always remember the scent of the grape ice pop on his breath and the way he closed his eyes just before their lips met."
By night, Till is gone.
Three years later, the still melancholy Tass marries and moves to Detroit to get away from Money, and all the pain it represents. Nearly 50 years later, after the death of her husband, Tass returns to Money, and the story of Emmett amd Tass reaches its conclusion.
While sharecropping, segregation, miscegenation, and natural disasters make up the book's backdrop, the focus stays on relationships and the consequences when true love is denied, either by code or personal resistance.
McFadden has a history of taking fiction to another level. The author of seven novels, including Sugar,Glorious, and The Warmest December, she has won numerous awards and was a three-time finalist for a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, which honors outstanding writers of African descent, and the winner of the 2011 Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award for Fiction.
Many critics find her work sweeping, rich and intense, as well as gut-wrenching and saddening.
Gathering of Waters is all of the above.
Jackie Jones is a career-transformation coach and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.