Sunday, July 05, 2009
Book reviews on BEYOND Understanding are usually limited to titles that explore issues of prejudice or celebrate diversity in some way. Carleen Brice’s Children of the Waters does both. Carleen, a friend and fellow Denver author, debuted as a novelist last year with Orange Mint and Honey, a book that not only won awards but became a fast favorite among book clubs (including mine). Her newest, Children of the Waters deserves just as much attention, if not more.
I have to admit I was prepared to compare Children of the Waters to Orange Mint and Honey and find it lacking. Written under contract in much less time than OMH, Children of the Waters seems to reflect the sense of urgency Carleen must have felt while writing it. At times disjointed and abrupt, this story is strengthened by the often strained back and forth between its two main characters, Trish and Billie, long-lost sisters reunited as each reaches critical junctures in her life. Issues such as mixed-race heritage, identity crises, a widely unrecognized but potentially devastating chronic disease (lupus), high-risk pregnancy, adoption, single parenting, and duty and loyalty are woven throughout the novel in ways that threaten to drive Trish and Billie—and the people they love—apart. Carleen proved herself as focused and determined as her strongest character as she somehow plowed through such heady material in a novel that’s accessible and enjoyable while also layered with meaning.
Humor’s never far from the surface, especially with a character like Trish around. But neither are heartfelt and often painful elements inherent in so many lives exposed to regular doses of blunt as well as subtle forms of prejudice. The struggle to know yourself when you’re forced to see or experience injustices others pretend don’t exist impacts everything from mental health to the health of your personal relationships. Ready to dismiss this as baseless sensationalism? Then take the time to read this book, to consider for more than a dismissive moment the potential truths of Billie’s statements such as this one, made as she battled with her sister over one thing, only to realize her anger was fueled by another…the fact her white grandparents refused to raise her because she was biracial: “Their betrayal roared back from the place she had tried to hide it from herself, and with it came hurt from bone memory. She wondered how many millions of black folks had felt the same way she did every single day and tried to pretend like they didn’t.”
Billie, brought up in a black family, depends on her ancestors and listens for their guidance. While at times this urgent story includes the author’s voice, Carleen’s intercessions ring just as true as Billie’s ancestors’. There is so much Carleen has to offer all her readers, from notes about black historical figures and the long traditions of healing arts, to the complexities of mixed-race families from varied points of view. Still skeptical that prejudice persists in our world despite the fact we have a black president in the White House? Read just some of the racist comments that follow this Washington Post article by Carleen from earlier this year. Post-racist society? We’re not even close. Which is why the fact Carleen gives her characters free reign to discuss a wide range of painful issues—including but certainly not limited to contemporary forms of racism—makes Children of the Waters an important work for people of all races to read and contemplate.