Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World opens two-hundred years ago on the shores of Nag’s Head, North Carolina, a sandbank notorious for pirates who once lured ships onto the shoals for the usual rape-and-plunder reasons. Such an attack has just taken place as the book begins, and this time the lone survivor is Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr. A man called Old Whaley finds her cowering in the trees—her ship wrecked, her friends murdered, her belongings stolen. From these opening sentences, Parker sets his readers adrift with a boatful of cruel, lonely, bitter, and thoroughly engrossing characters. The journey spans a century, but never leaves the fog-shrouded isles where Theodosia found her life so suddenly and irrevocably transformed.
Like most good novels set in the past, Parker’s contains a kernel of historical fact: Theodosia Burr Alston did indeed disappear, although no one knows what happened to her. One myth maintains she died in the arms of a Karankawa Indian warrior on the Texas Gulf Coast. Some say she drowned in a run-of-the-mill storm. However it happened, though, most accounts agree she ended up dead sooner rather than later. But over the years, that didn’t stop the rumormongers. Romantics and historians alike have seen deep mystery in her story, and, like Amelia Earhart or the vanished colonists at Roanoke, various theories have surfaced to explain what really happened to her. Parker plays off of these legends; in his version, a pirate named Daniels—possibly based on John Foster Payne or one of several others who claimed to have killed Theodosia—spares her life.
The line demarcating literary and historical fiction has always shifted as authors from Homer to Hugo bend, blend, reorganize, and reinvent history itself, from Waterloo to Watergate. Tolstoy’s War and Peace might accurately be called a historical novel; so might Child of God, The Man in the Iron Mask, or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Ambiguous personalities like Theodosia’s offer a particular attraction for fiction writers, too, because authors are allowed to invent characters and then graft that detail onto whatever scraps survive in the records. However, in The Watery Part of the World, history is merely a touchstone that launches a much larger story. Parker’s novel displays an ambitious scope early on, as he writes back and forth across time, mixing together a centuries-long plot that includes an old black man, Woodrow Thornton, and Theodosia’s descendants, Maggie and Theo Whaley, facing tragedy during a hurricane on Yaupon Island.
Parker’s strongest writing is about people and how they perceive one another. His depiction of Woodrow, for example, maintains a lyrical tone that enhances the character. The voice manages to sound both conversational and earnest. As he develops a complicated relationship with the Whaley sisters, Woodrow shares his thoughts about them; his observations, filtered through Parker, are humorous, incisive, and compassionate:
She clung to that family name of Whaley like the three of them clung to their island after the storms kept coming, though it was her first name, the one nobody ever called her for years and years—Theodosia—that really puffed her up. She’d tell anybody about her famous ancestor, daughter of some famous white man shot another famous white man.
The novel can at times feel disconnected, because the chronology of events—and the time period and viewpoint shifts—give it an unsettled impression. Still, the writing never confuses, and usually focuses on emotion between the characters. Compare Woodrow’s casual-but-observant worldliness to Theo Whaley’s cruel-but-sometimes-sympathetic objectivity.
She thought that this was something Woodrow knew through and through, though he let himself hurt, she’d seen him do it. He wasn’t fragile like Maggie, but things people said got away with him, like they had today. … Maggie and Woodrow were both so sensitive. She’d never meant this word in the positive way some people used it—to describe a person who felt and cared deeply, intelligently, like Theodosia. She meant it as a criticism, a sign of weakness.
One thing is certain: Throughout the novel Parker cares deeply for his characters, and from the first page to the last he renders them in perfect detail. The book is rich in voice and oral storytelling traditions. For readers who love history, and for those that just love a good story, The Watery Part of the World offers the chance to see people come to life, past and present, fictional and otherwise, lit in the fading stormlight of North Carolina, ready to tell their stories to anyone with the time and inclination to listen.