by Michael McDowell
“How children survive their parents,” sighed Sister, “is a thing I will never understand.”
Blackwater is a sweeping, epic family drama with some horror and supernatural elements. While all 6 novels contain some of these elements, they’re mostly second fiddle to the drama with the possible exception of the sixth and final entry. It works perfectly.
Blackwater 1 – The Flood
Elinor, a mysterious young woman, is introduced to the town of Perdido by being rescued from a mostly submerged hotel during a flood that buried the town. The flood took her money, her credentials, her history, and she’s here to teach the 4th grade. Months pass as the townspeople recover from the disaster and Elinor endears herself to much of the town, with the notable exception of her new husband’s domineering mother. Elinor wields a dark power that is not to be stopped, however, and eventually hatches a plan to get her husband and herself out of the mother-in-law’s house and into their own with only few lives sacrificed along the way.
Blackwater 2 – The Levee
Elinor and her husband move into their new house by Elinor agreeing to give up her first born to the domineering Mary-Love, her mother-in-law. Mary-Love believes she’s finally gotten the better of Elinor by trapping her in this way, but quickly realizes Elinor doesn’t seem to care. An engineer moves to town to construct a levee that would prevent future flooding, and while Elinor initially opposes the plan she eventually comes around near the levee’s completion. Elinor and Oscar have a second child, Francis; this one they can keep.
Very little of the supernatural is present in The Levee until the end, when horror rears its head for a few pages and we’re reminded this isn’t Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is a badass horror novel and one hell of a project.
Blackwater 3 – The House
The saga of the Caskey family continues with the levee finished. Years pass while the children grow up. Elinor’s first child that she gave up to Mary-Love proves to be a spoiled brat, and Elinor’s second child, whom she raised herself, is sweet, kind and often battling illness. James Caskey’s late wife’s sister Queenie moves to Perdido to be cared for by the Caskey family, and is followed to town by her murderous husband. Mary-Love and Elinor continue their societal war, which comes to a head when the Caskeys leave for vacation while Mary-Love is fallen ill with Elinor home to care for her. Mary-Love expires under Elinor’s care, and Elinor’s spoiled first daughter Miriam stands to inherit a great deal of money.
Blackwater 4 – The War
The Caskey’s lives continue as the Great Depression ends and WWII begins. Another beautifully rendered vision of a time past, this book probably contains more horror elements than any of the preceding novels with the main focus remaining on the day to day lives of the characters. The war effort makes the Caskeys far richer than they were as the lumber mills are finally operating at capacity and the large purchases of land by Oscar orchestrated through his wife Elinor pay huge dividends.
Perhaps most important in this book is the emergence of Elinor’s second daughter into monsterdom. Little Frances is one of the sweetest, gentlest, down-homiest monsters you’ll ever find. Travis Gann, a former friend of Queenie’s son and imprisoned for a convenience store holdup, returns to Perdido and rapes the fully grown and beautiful Lucille, Queenie’s daughter. Lucille recovers and moves to a remote farmhouse with her friend and soon to be lover, Grace.
Elinor’s first daughter, Miriam, goes off to school, graduates and returns home to live in Mary-Love’s old house, taking up work with her father at the mill.
The matter of fact way in which Elinor finally explains a few things to her daughter Frances is a high point, while the passing on of James Caskey is a certain low.
Blackwater 5 – The Fortune
An ex-army serviceman named Billy has become familiar and eventually enamored with the Caskey family. After marrying Frances, Billy begins to work on the Caskey fortune with the idea of expanding it beyond anyone’s dreams. Miriam becomes more and more entrenched at the mill, and Oscar eventually realizes she is handing all the day to day responsibility. Elinor continues to pressure everyone to buy land, and huge portions of worthless swampland are purchased based on Elinor’s assertion there is oil underneath. Miriam, having developed into quite the businesswoman, believes in her mother while everyone else doubts, and begins the process of getting big Texas oil companies involved in the land. Oil is abundant, and the Caskey wealth grows to the point no one knows what to do with the money.
Frances gives birth to twins with her mother Elinor and servant Ivey as nursemaids (no doctors), and one little girl is normal while the other shares the qualities of Elinor and Frances. Elinor and Frances tell the family the 2nd baby died in childbirth and give the child to the Perdido River, where Frances cares for her daily during her long swims in the turbulent waters. Frances becomes more and more attached to her child of the Perdido, and while she does have affection for her ‘normal’ child the river calls to her. She has increasing difficulty in transforming back to her human form after her time in the water, and Frances eventually decides to go back to the river permanently to care for her other child there.
Blackwater 6 – The Rain
The saga of the Caskey family comes to a close. No details to be provided here to end the saga, but it’s not really a surprise ending. What it is is beautiful, tragic, dark and human. Over the course of this sixth novel you may mist up a few times, and by the end have a full-blown spec of sawdust in your eye.
We meet and live with 3 generations of the Caskey family as they move about their lives gaining money, trading their children, battling each other, loving each other, and living and dying. The family drama has a Legends of the Fall feel along with the many of the wholesome qualities of Little House on the Prairie. But in the end there is no mistaking these books as other than horror. Just because we spend a few hours dealing with sibling rivalry, power struggles, infighting and animosity between family members who deep down (mostly) love each other, that doesn’t mean someone isn’t about to have their limbs ripped off.
The attachment to these characters can became profound, and the books are written with the skill of a master storyteller. We need the men, women and children that populate the work to be OK–because we love them.
An astounding, massive project of love and loss, the monsters that inhabit the story only add to the main focus: human relationships.
Slightly greater than the sum of its outstanding parts: