65 pages 2 hours read

Nathan Harris

The Sweetness of Water

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Sweetness of Water is the 2021 debut historical novel by author Nathan Harris. It has received critical acclaim from Barack Obama as well as Oprah Winfrey, who included it as part of Oprah’s Book Club; the novel was also awarded the 2021 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Set against the backdrop of the Confederate Army’s Civil War defeat, the book illustrates the day-to-day hardships experienced by returning soldiers, the families who lost children to the war, farmers and entrepreneurs facing the rapid changes brought about by industrialization, and the racism, starvation, and emotional suffering experienced by formerly enslaved Black people. The following study guide references the Kindle edition of the novel published by Little Brown and Company.

Content warning: This book includes depictions of antigay bias, racial slurs, and racially-motivated violence.

Plot Summary

Set immediately following the Civil War in the fictional town of Old Ox, Georgia, the novel follows two formerly enslaved men, Prentiss and Landry, as they adjust to life as freed men under the newly signed Emancipation Proclamation. The men, who accidentally meet up with George Walker on his forested property that borders Majesty’s Palace, the plantation where they were enslaved, plan to move to the North after enough money to do so. George, who is regularly in the woods hunting an elusive animal that has haunted him since childhood, offers the men work turning part of his forest into a meaningful and productive peanut farm. The men live on George’s farm, and Landry, who much prefers his freedom in silence, turns to the forest to help him regain his identity.

When Caleb, George and Isabelle Walker’s son who joined the Confederate Army, suddenly returns home after it was believed he was killed for deserting the army during the fighting, he brings with him the emotional turmoil soldiers inherit from war. However, beyond the memories of being beaten by Union soldiers is the sexual attraction he has for August Webler, his best friend and fellow Confederate soldier. When August sees Landry watching him and Caleb consummating their relationship at a nearby pond, he fears their secret is in jeopardy, and he chases him through the woods until he catches him and beats him to death. The events of that afternoon set off a firestorm of hatred and distrust among the members of the town toward the Walkers, who support and try to protect the former slaves.

Caleb eventually tells the truth about August’s involvement in Landry’s murder, but the town doubts that August, the son of the well-to-do and respected Mr. Webler, could commit such a crime. Prentiss, who takes exception to the proclamation of August’s innocence, attacks the Sheriff and ends up in jail awaiting the judgment of what will likely be death by hanging. While waiting for the judge to come into town, Caleb breaks Prentiss out of jail. Caleb, Prentiss, and George decide to flee north to safety.

George, who is physically weak and ailing, decides to send the men ahead to safety while he stays in the woods to serve as a decoy for Sheriff Hackstedde and Mr. Webler. When the authorities finally catch up with George, George points a pistol at them. Taking no chances, they shoot him in the leg. After being hospitalized, George returns home where the infection in his leg leads to having it amputated. George dies under his wife’s care, and the farm is turned over to her to run. Keeping George’s wish to have the farm serve as something meaningful, Isabelle allows recently freed slaves to work the land and harvest crops until they get on their feet.

By the end of the novel, Caleb writes Isabelle a letter that indicates he and Prentiss have safely made it to a town in the North and have found employment. The details of the letter are sparse, as Caleb fears tipping off the authorities to his whereabouts. Isabelle learns to take comfort in the sparse details of the letter and forces herself to hang onto hope as she waits for Caleb’s next letter.

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