“I think the hope has always been that you see what you see, and you take us anyway, for who we are.”

blackwaterrisingBooks on Tap read Black Water Rising by Attica Locke at  Champion Brewery on February 1st. Set in Houston, Texas in 1981, the novel follows African American lawyer Jay Porter as his wife is due to deliver their first child and his practice teeters on bankruptcy. A chance encounter with a drowning white woman upends his hard-earned stability and forces him to confront his activist past and the corroding influence of the oil industry. The book at times feels overwritten, with too many plots and some silent characters like his wife Bernie. As with many first novels, it could have benefited from editing. Locke was partially inspired by her own life – her father was a student protester in the 1960s and ran for mayor in Houston, which has a recent history of electing diverse people. The incident on the barge was similar to one she witnessed as a child. The book is  not quite a thriller or mystery or suspense novel, but most definitely a David vs. Goliath story with a sympathetic main character. Despite the confusion over the many threads (60s radicalism, unions, environmental racism) it does land on a satisfying ending, setting up the sequel.

Jay is the heart and soul of the novel. He worked hard to put himself through college and law school, only to be jailed for his activism. He can’t shake the thought that he was set-up by the white women he was dating, who is now running for mayor. This uneasy relationship colors his interaction with the white woman he saves from drowning; she doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her because of the color divide. Jay also faces pressure from within the local African American community. His friend Kwame doesn’t think Jay is black enough and his father-in-law pressures him to help the dockworkers. Jay lives under constant mental stress, sleeping with a gun under his pillow. While we weren’t all cheering for Jay at all times (like the titular character of Better Call Saul, he takes chances in order to make money to keep his practice a float), we did get caught up in the tension and rooted for  his survival.

We mulled over the differences between the book’s 1981 setting  vs 2018. The rampant indoor smoking is a thing of the past, but aspects of distrust between races and classes still ring true.

More Information:
Attica Locke will be at the Festival of the Book on March 23 and 24
Interview with the author
About the book
Other works  

Books on Tap Information:
In March we will read What We Talk about when We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander as part of JMRL’s Same Page. For a free copy of the book, please email Sarah at shamfeldt@jmrl.org

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