I always love a good short story collection and Crystal Wilkinson impresses me yet again with her second book, Water Street. I also read her most recent novel, The Birds of Opulence, in on setting and found it to be breathtaking. Now I am compelled to read her first book, Blackberries, Blackberries.
Each chapter centers around the complex and emotionally fraught lives of people who grew up on Water Street, an “almost Southern” town in Kentucky. This street is their “homeland,” a world of their own. In this tight-knit community of largely black and a few white neighbors, everyone knows everyone. Some secrets, though, don’t make it to the light of day and are “carried beneath the breastbone, near the heart, for safekeeping.”
The vibrant and soulful characters share their touching stories of heartache, troubled marriages and consuming relationships (“I loved your father with my whole me”). Some deal with the death of loved ones and the devastating effects of grief (“his grieving-well was dug too deeply”). The taboo topic of mental illness is addressed. You see characters making tough choices in order to evolve into their best selves. If I could pinpoint a running theme throughout the stories it might be on how to live your own life and be your most authentic self. How “you got to live till you die.” And “living” is about letting go, pushing back, accepting limitations, swallowing your pride and stepping up to the plate.
Another intriguing topic that comes up more than once is the controversy of interracial relationships in a racist society. A black character recounts cheating on his wife with a white woman and the immense guilt that causes. Lois, a white woman, probes her at times problematic inner thoughts about her marriage to a black man and the ostracization she’s faced. She wakes up sometimes “startled” to be laying next to a black man. She is glad to know some of her grand-kids, who all identify as black, can’t deny being partly white and therefore can’t deny her. Lois recalls a childhood memory of walking a young black boy home and looking at her hand in his, thinking: “both our hands were just hands. Who cared about skin?” Her naivety and lack of understanding of the systemic nature of racism reminds me of a powerful quote by James Baldwin: “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only include what they feel from the state of their institutions.” Lois’ well-intentioned, liberal feelings don’t translate into the reality black people face. Another black female character gets intimate with her secret, white boyfriend. Minutes later, she is verbally attacked by a group of her white classmates who call her racial slurs. I’m not sure if Wilkinson was implicitly sending the message that interracial relationships live comfortably within white supremacy and poses no threat to it, but that’s what comes across and she would be absolutely right.
Overall this was an absorbing collection. The language is beautiful, fluid and poetic in a way that is not overly enigmatic. You become fond of the characters and wish you could meet them in real life perhaps to share some of your secrets too.