Black Water Summary

Black Water is a 1992 novella about a young woman named Kelly Kelleher who is killed in a car accident. The novella’s events are based on the real-life Chappaquiddick incident.

  • Kelly, who is keenly interested in politics, meets the much-older Senator at a Fourth of July party thrown by her friend Buffy St. John on Grayling Island.
  • Kelly and the Senator leave to spend the night together, but the Senator becomes lost and drives off the road into deep water.
  • While the Senator escapes the sinking car and flees the scene, Kelly is trapped and ultimately drowns.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates is a novella based on the tragic Chappaquiddick incident, in which Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a one-lane bridge late one evening in July 1969. Kennedy was able to escape, but his passenger, campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. In Black Water, Oates changes the names of the characters—Kennedy’s character is referred to simply as “the Senator,” and Mary Jo is Kelly Kelleher. Oates also updates the timeframe from 1969 to the Reagan era.

The version Oates spins delves deep inside the mind of Kelly, summoning her thoughts, hopes, and dreams and imagining what it was like for this young woman to meet an important senator and become the object of his attention. The novella recounts their meeting at a Fourth of July party and how the Senator’s brief attentions and wooing led to Kelly’s fatal attraction to this older man of importance and means.

Through flashbacks to Kelly’s past, we learn how she came to be interested in politics through her family’s connections, her own experiences, and her carefully formed opinions. Just like Mary Jo, Kelly is a young, impassioned woman with the future ahead of her—a future that is shattered with one poor decision to get in the car with a man who has probably had too much to drink.

We learn about the Senator’s background and character mainly through Kelly’s impressions—what she thought she knew before meeting him and his attentiveness to her. Because we never really get into his mind, his character is kept more at arm’s length, which adds to his looming presence in the story. Oates makes the tale even more chilling by recounting the car accident in different ways throughout the story, capturing in excruciating detail how Kelly must have thought and felt during her final moments.

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