By Way of Water
By Charlotte Gullick
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Justy lives with her family in a small cabin in the woods of California timber country. Her father is Jake: of Native American heritage, unemployed, alcoholic, a violent drunk, but a master of the fiddle. Her mother is Dale: quiet, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and once a wonderful singer. Her older siblings are Lacee, a voracious bookworm, and Micah, excited for his impending baptism. It’s 1977, there’s no timber jobs, and the outlook is bleak. Then one day Justy decided not to talk, perplexing her teachers. We see the world through Justy’s eyes in By Way of Water by Charlotte Gullick.
Unlike her depressed father and devout mother, Justy sees the world through its natural wonders. She identifies with the nearby Eel River, wanting to be one with it. Despite the paranoia instilled by her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, she befriends a boy named Ochre in her first grade class. Ochre is the son of Sunshine, the local hippies. When Jake’s father Kyle returns, home life gets even more complicated. Employed by the local mine owner to dig up the graves at a proposed mine site, Jake and his father end their day in a fist fight.
Charlotte Gullick has been compared to John Steinbeck and it is easy to see the comparison. The cast of characters ride that fine line between lived-in individual and stock caricature. Each character feels real despite their tendency to make your blood boil. The mine owner, Gaines, is rich, racist, and arrogant, but in a charming down-home way. Justy’s first grade teacher is a cheerful hippie-type who speaks her mind against the mining and timber industries, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most of her students are children of lumberjacks. Jake and Dale seem engineered to infuriate the reader, each with their own brand of personal stubbornness. Dale came to the Witnesses when Jake became violent and abusive, yet she gave up her gift as a singer. One of Jake’s first acts in the novel is an act of poaching, illegally hunting a deer. He does so to feed his family. Despite such Jean Valjean-ish acts of heroic theft, he also refuses to apply for welfare. (It’s one thing when there is an ideological ax to grind, it’s another when children are involved.) Under other circumstances, one could see Jake and Dale as a musical duo. Sometime one endures suffering that is self-inflicted.
Gullick’s description of nature, especially through Justy’s eyes, recall Steinbeck. Nature is not the benevolent Earth Mother of hippie mythology, but a thing containing both beauty and cruelty. Justy observes the field dressing of a deer in all its anatomical evisceration. (Remember the pig slaughtering scene from Grapes of Wrath?) Even though the scene traumatized her, she is hungry. Later Kyle tells her sad stories about the Native American side of her family. Deep down Justy wants one thing: to escape. Her family history contains more personal despair than can be endured and within the framework of the Witnesses, she simply does not fit. During a day of service, she goes to Ochre’s family and marvels at their tipi, drinks flavorful tea, and smells the richness of herbs. Joella, Dale’s friend and leader of the expedition, writes them off as pot heads.
Make no mistake, this is a bleak read. It’s Shameless or Trailer Park Boys minus the jokes. While Gullick is a gifted writer, a master of both descriptive scene and realistic characters, there are occasions where the novels sounds too “writerly.” A few of the more polished sections could have been pared down and made plain. There’s the rub. One has to balance the craft of writing with the demands of the story. The beautifully crafted sections just seemed out of place in a novel filled with relentless poverty and bleakness. These passages inadvertently sugar-coated the situation. In a story of this type, I don’t want to stop and say, “Wow, that was a well-wrought sentence.” But this is purely a subjective assessment. For those interested in California timber country and its controversial politics in the early days of the Carter Administration, By Way of Water offers a unique view through Justy’s eyes.
Out of 10/8.0