In The Watery Part of the World, author Michael Parker has built his story around two historical facts. The first is that in 1813 Theodosia Burr Alston the daughter of Aaron Burr and the wife of the governor of South Carolina disappeared when the schooner she boarded in South Carolina failed to arrive in New York. The second fact is that in 1970 two elderly white woman and one African American man were the last townspeople to leave a small barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. These two events bookend a very interesting novel imagining the 150 year history of that small island.
Thanks to a doting Father, Theo was probably one of the very best educated women in the United States. In 1813 she was headed to New York to fight the treason charges against her father when her ship seemingly vanished. In Parker's story, Theo's ship is attacked by pirates and she eventually winds up on Yaupon Island in the Outer Banks. Her rescue from the pirates and survival comes about as the result of help from a hermit and freed slave, Whaley. Theo's long term survival is aided by her mad belief that despite being trapped on the island she is still a vital part of her Father's defense. She cannot give in to death while she is still needed. All the other trappings of her former life rapidly fall away in the face of a life spent scavenging the beaches for anything edible or useful.
Sisters Maggie and Whaley and Woodrow, a man compelled to help them, came to be the last citizens on the island because of safety concerns. There have been too many floods, hurricanes, storms for people to be willing to live on Yaupon and for the mainland to support services on the island so in old age they become evacuees. Why they have stayed on the island is complicated. It goes beyond this place having been their home all their lives to history. Woodrow feels that he somehow owes it to his late wife to stay. His tie to the sisters is no Driving Miss Daisy. It is deep and dark. He is a direct decedent of the freed slave that saved Theodosia's life more than a century before. Maggie and Whaley are the last survivors of a doomed race, people that time forgot. They are the last descendants of Theo and of the island. Their lives have always been measured by the island. For them moving to the mainland might as well be moving to the moon.
Parker alternates the chapters between Theo's story and her decedents. Woodrow, Maggie, Whaley and the anthropologists who periodically visit to record their lives each have their own points of view represented. So while Theo's story has a straightforward authority coming only from herself, the parts of novel that deal with the more recent past have a more intricate jumble to them.
Despite the presence of pirates, pestilence and perversity The Watery Part of the World is not an action a minute read. Nor given the starting points for the novel is it reliable historical fiction that details a particular moment in time. Michael Parker has made his book a meditation about isolation, how habit can kidnap a life and the strange and powerful relationships that develop when choice is not an option. This is a beautifully written character study that is just shy of being a fantastic novel.