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"The Waters" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz

The title “The Waters'' refers to M’sauga a small island located in rural Michigan. Situated on the island are an outhouse, a chicken coop, a cowshed and paddock for donkeys, a cottage called Rose Cottage, and grasses for the protected Massasauga rattlesnake. 

            A permanent inhabitant of Rose Cottage is Hermine Zook, an 80-year-old woman who is both legendary and feared for her attitude and herbal medicines, which are used to miraculously cure many ailments. Mostly she is known for her ability to provide antidotes to begin or end a pregnancy. For requests to be considered, secret notes are passed to her in a basket on a picnic bench on the other side of the island. A drawbridge, operated only by Hermine and her family, connects the island to the adjacent land. If Hermine deems the request worthy, she will place the medicine in a basket to be picked up later. 

            The novel opens with the words "Once upon a time” and the reader is introduced to a contemporary setting and magical characters. The four women who lived on M’sauga Island are very real; one is a lawyer, one a nurse, and one a beauty known for her ability to make men weak-kneed. Then there is Hermine, the mother figure whom everyone refers to as “Herself” with her magic potions and distrust for institutions and men. Dorothy, a child of 11, also known as Donkey, is a main figure in this coming-of-age story. She lives with Hermine.

            All the women have power in their independence, their self-reliance, and their secrets. Yet, all except Donkey have left the island they love and the mother-figure they adore, weighed down by their secrets of abuse and betrayal by the men whom they have encountered during their young years. It is their leave-taking and sporadic return that steers the novel’s remarkable plot in which they come to terms with their past, begin to forgive, and forge their own futures.

            A few men from the town are portrayed at the beginning of the novel as mostly good but eccentric. They have been displaced as farmers and laborers as mechanization, big business, and climate change have disrupted their land and their ability to live as their fathers did. The author describes them with humor and empathy. They become important figures in the redemption of the sisters and Dorothy. They bear an equal mix of violence and deep feelings of love.

            The early chapters are slow paced as the characters and the setting are introduced. When Rose, the beauty, arrives early in the novel on a bus from a visit to California, she encounters the men who seem to magically want to do better just because of her presence. When they discover that she is carrying a 3-day-old baby, the action picks up. As the characters come to decisions about their own lives at the end of the novel, readers will wish for the story to continue.

            Bonnie Jo Campbell is a best-selling novelist and short story writer. She lives in rural Michigan.   

            Buy the Book.




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