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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: Dark Water by Laura McNeal

Laura McNeal's "Dark Water" is criminally under-appreciated. It is a novel that will spark discussions among readers and educate them without ever being preachy or pedantic. Plus it's a great story with a tender romance. It was up for the 2010 National Book Award and yet few readers that I know have encountered it. I'm making it my goal to change that - starting now.

Pearl Dewitt is fifteen years old and since her parent's recent divorce she and her mother subsist on the courtesy of her wealthy uncle. They live in a tiny cottage on his avocado farm in southern California. Those scant details represent the momentum of the book; that being the issues most pressing to southern California: migrant workers, water, and fire. "Dark Water" is a reflection of all of these.

Pearl is intrigued by a young immigrant, Amiel, who is alone in town, doesn't speak, and leans on the near side of eccentricity. Amiel is fascinating; he is not downtrodden and sad eyed as the other men who wait at street corners looking for work are. When Amiel begins to work on her uncle's farm, Pearl finds excuses to talk to him, watch him, or simply be near him. It is young love. More infatuation than genuine feeling, but McNeal handles it so deftly that the book never veers into teenage melodrama.

Any relationship between Pearl and Amiel is not only taboo it is outright forbidden. Culturally it just cannot be done. This is a fact that Pearl brazenly ignores but Amiel never forgets. Amiel's resolve is yet another way in which McNeal keeps "Dark Water" from becoming a typical tale of young romance. Through their friendship the true goal of the book is realized. We see a discussion of the working immigrant life in the US. The workers are both desperately needed and ultimately disdained. This is a hugely important topic, and to see it tackled with such grace and wrapped in such a nice prose package is wonderful. I would love to see this novel discussed; especially in a classroom setting.

"Dark Water" approaches the issue of Latin American immigrants from a relatable and humanizing perspective. At one point, as Pearl questions her uncle about the men who work his farm he describes an afternoon spent with one of his picker's children:
I took Esteban's kids up into the tree house because I thought they might like to play in it. And you know what the youngest one said? He looked around with this really serious face and asked, 'Who's going to live here?'
As Pearl's uncle later expresses, it is important to know "why they left." That's what's so great about the novel. Laura McNeal uses all of these elements to tell a story that is interesting on many levels. The drama of love and the danger of the oncoming wildfire serve the purpose of creating a discussion about a difficult modern issue. Yes, this is a teen novel and I think it is one that's important for teens to read. However, I think it is equally important and enjoyable for adult readers as well. "Dark Water" can be read as a different novel by all who approach it, but the questions it asks will create personal discussions and lasting changes.

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