Wind, emotion fill 'Watery Part of World'

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2011

“The Watery Part of the World,” by Michael Parker. 2011. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 261 pp. $23.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
What if your ancestor was Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr, wife of South Carolina governor Joseph Alston?
What if you lived your entire life on an island off the Outer Banks in increasing isolation and all you had to hold on to were stories of its past?
You’d be closed in a small, small world, open to a wide world of wind and water and fear — fear of what’s across the sound, on the mainland, fear of the next big blow and what it will take from you.
If you’re a survivor, you change with each wind or you dig your roots into the sand as far as you can go, shut your eyes and pretend nothing has changed.
In Michael Parker’s “The Watery Part of the World,” readers learn about stubbornness and survival and the depths to which some people sink to survive.
The fictional Yaupon Island is the anchor shifting in the sand, holding past and present together until it is free of its human components.
Parker uses Theodosia for part of his story. Her ship is overtaken by pirates who brutalize and kill most of the people on board, except for her. Clutching a portrait of herself, she convinces the pirates she’s crazy, and they let her live.
She nearly meets death once she washes ashore, until a man offers her shelter.
Theodosia Burr Alston was lost somewhere along the Outer Banks, that much is true. Some have said her ship was overtaken by pirates. Myths and legends, many romantic, have sprung up about her fate, including a version of what Parker tells here.
But it’s all very much a mystery. A more recent tale says an elderly Outer Banker had the alluring portrait hanging in her shack, a prize gleaned from “progging,” collecting whatever has washed ashore from a shipwreck.
Parker credits Richard N. Cote’s “Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy” and Nancy Isenberg’s “Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr” plus shelves of Outer Banks tales and mysteries as his sources.
If nothing else, this book reminds us that Theodosia was an extremely accomplished woman of her age, devoted to her father, one of the most infamous figures in American history.
Parker then creates Maggie and her sister, Theodosia Whaley, the fictional great-great-great-granddaughters of Theodosia Burr Alston.
They live on the island where the first Theodosia took former pirate Whaley to her bed and produced three children, from whom they descend.
That first family thrives after a fashion only islanders appreciate, well enough to take on a slave, whose descendant, Woodrow Thornton, becomes the Whaley sisters’ lifeline to the mainland.
The Whaley sisters, along with Woodrow and his wife, Sarah, are the lone inhabitants on the island into the 1970s.
Everything and everyone else is gone. The homes are abandoned, the school has burned, the post office sits empty.
Woodrow lives in a house near the bottoms and is known as one of the best watermen on the Banks. He and Sarah have 11 children, all of whom are eager to get them off the island and settled in civilization.
Woodrow won’t have it. Neither will the sisters. The island is like a mother’s womb to them.
Theodosia Whaley is the snooty sister, fancying herself the keeper of the legends, the queen of the island. She treats Woodrow like a servant due to the color of his skin.
Maggie, the lovelorn sister, is absolutely incapable of surviving off island. It’s as if her faculties get lost in the sea as she crosses the sound.
Even decades after the affair is over, Maggie pines for her lost lover, Boyd, then 24 to her 40. All he wanted was for her to move to the mainland with him.
Maggie reveres Woodrow, trusts him completely, though they barely talk. Parker casts Woodrow as the soul of the island, the one to whom the wind and waves speak.
The modern day story takes up most of the book, delving deeply into the human spirit, the dark and lonely hearts, the storms and suns of the islanders.
But the first Theodosia remains as a reminder of survival. She loses her Whaley to evil, yet she has a long life afterward.
It’s the modern day Theodosia Whaley who brings about the end of their lives on today’s island. For years, she’s had a habit of not exactly telling the truth.
The stories she has embellished for the “Tape Recorders,” two researchers who come regularly to the island to record its history, sound good. Especially when she puts on her Bankers’ accent. Theodosia Whaley survives because she lives in her own world. Maggie suffers because she lives in reality.
When Theodosia Whaley is given a vital task during a violent storm, she fails for the most selfish reason imaginable. The consequences, the deadly consequences of that failure, bring reality crashing down on her and lead to the end of what they love most — life on the island.
Without electricity, later, without Woodrow, there’s no more surviving. The sisters are victims of the island they loved so much, victims of stubbornness and pride.
Parker goes quietly into the hearts of his characters and leaves readers with a sense of what life could have been for the islanders, and a clear sense of loss when hope founders.

Reading and signing
Michael Parker will read from and sign his book, “The Watery Part of the World” on Tuesday, starting with a reception at 5, reading at 5:30 and book signing to follow at Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main St. His previous books will also be available.