It’s hurricane season on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Irene being the latest violent storm to wreck the shores. A recent interview on the news with a long-time resident of those dunes told how she loved the terrifying beauty of the sea there, and planned to live there as long as she could survive. In Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World, set in Nag’s Head, physical and personal storms invade the story and the survivors, and some will never leave.
Alternating between the 1970’s and the 1800’s, Parker connects the geography and the characters with the recurring storms changing their lives. The story set in the 1970’s, has three remaining inhabitants on one of the barrier islands – sisters, Whaley and Maggie, and their handyman, Woodrow, whose wife died in a hurricane. They live alone and isolated on the island; everyone else has been driven away by the weather. Once a year the ‘Tape Recorders” interview them – anthropologists looking for pieces of forgotten history, and O’Malley carries the mail and groceries over the sound to them once a week. Their idea of fun is reading the grocery store ads aloud on the church steps. Their story, sometimes told in a halting dialect, creates a strange Gothic aura of interdependence. They are the modern descendants of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr, and the freed slave who helped her.
The backstory introduces Theo Burr, wife to the Governor of South Carolina and well-educated daughter of Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson. When pirates attack her ship, Theo feigns madness and survives only because the scoundrels believe she is mad – thereby, untouchable. Theo, carrying Burr’s papers, was determined to use them to exonerate her father’s reputation (Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was accused of treason for trying to seize the Louisiana Territory). Instead, she finds herself struggling to survive – scrounging for washed-up debris to make a shelter and befriended by a mysterious recluse, Whaley, who seems to have a connection to the pirate who controls the island.
Theo’s story is more captivating than her descendants, who seem to be locked in a psychological struggle of loneliness and missed chances. Theo finds the strength to live her new life, away from the comforts of her rich existence, with only her portrait to remind her of her other life, and the terror of the pirate Daniel, Whaley’s former collaborator, ever-present. The sisters of the seventies, on the other hand, wallow in self-pity and stories of the past until they become caricatures; their angst becomes depressing – Maggie reliving the memory of a lost lover with references to Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony, and Whaley bitterly invoking her selfish past. Even Woodward, trapped to obeisance by some misplaced loyalty, loses patience with them, after a while.
A byproduct of reading the book was the interest it fostered in Aaron Burr and his relationship with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. In reality, Burr’s daughter was lost at sea while sailing up the Eastern coast, and her body was never found, but Parker creates an alternative life for her. If she had lived, Parker would have her and her descendants trapped on an island.
Read more about Aaron Burr – here