The Sweetness of Water

by Nathan Harris

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The Sweetness of Water Summary

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris is a 2021 novel about two brothers in post–Civil War Georgia who leave behind lives of slavery and forge a bond with the white Walker family.

  • Brothers Prentiss and Landry, recently emancipated, meet white landowner George Walker. George offers to employ the brothers at a fair wage, and they agree.
  • When Landry witnesses George’s son, Caleb, being intimate with August Webler, August kills Landry. Later, Prentiss spits on August’s father and is arrested.
  • Caleb breaks Prentiss out of jail, and George helps the two young men escape to the North.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

George and Isabelle Walker live on plentiful acreage in Old Ox, a rural town in Georgia, just after the conclusion of the Civil War. They are devastated by news that Caleb, their only child, has died in the war, and they struggle to remain connected to one another in a home that feels desolate and emotionally barren. As they process their grief, Isabelle turns to her friend Mildred for support; George decides to farm for the first time in his life, finally giving purpose to the land he inherited from his father’s hard work.

George employs Prentiss and Landry, two brothers who were recently freed by Union forces and who have spent their entire lives enslaved on a nearby plantation. Landry has suffered horrific abuse that has rendered him almost entirely speechless; Prentiss serves as the voice for the pair and as his brother’s protector. George offers the brothers fair wages to help him cultivate his land and learn to grow peanuts.

While working in the fields, George is one day shocked to hear his wife screaming. After rushing back to their cabin, he is astounded to find his son in their yard, embraced by his mother. The reports of his death were inaccurate; Caleb had deserted his Confederate troop in an attempt to save his own life and had then walked home after being freed by Union troops at the end of the war. Although his parents are thrilled to have Caleb home again, they still struggle to find any semblance of intimacy with each other and instead maintain their lives of separate routines.

Back home, Caleb reunites with August, his childhood friend and secret lover. August’s family is wealthy and influential, and he dominates Caleb physically and emotionally in the time they spend together. August tells Caleb that his parents have arranged a marriage for him and that he finds the match tolerable. Caleb tries to hide the pain this causes him.

Later, Caleb meets August at their secret hiding place, a secluded pond. As it happens, this pond is also a favorite escape for Landry, who is mesmerized by the water. As Landry swims under the surface, he realizes that he is no longer alone. When he recognizes Caleb and sees that he is naked with another man, Landry tries to sneak away. August notices him at the last moment and demands that Caleb help him chase the young man down.

As he runs away, Landry trips and hurts his ankle. August approaches him and finds a huge branch nearby, which he uses to repeatedly bash Landry’s head. Caleb sits on the ground, unable to move or aid Landry. When the sheriff arrives, he rules the death accidental, maintaining the impossible conclusion that Landry must have fallen. After Caleb reveals the truth about both August’s actions and their relationship, August’s father uses his influence to sway public opinion in his son’s favor. Caleb finally stands up to August, and Prentiss spits a wad of phlegm into the face of August’s father, Wade. Prentiss is swiftly taken to jail as Wade demands that he be hanged.

Taking his grandfather’s guns, as well as the gun he used in the war, Caleb breaks into the jail and rescues Prentiss just before he is to be killed. The two return home for some provisions before fleeing, and George decides to travel the first leg of their journey with them. His health deteriorates rapidly as they ride, yet he pushes himself to help the two get as far as possible. Eventually, they see the sheriff’s search team behind them, and George...

(This entire section contains 1074 words.)

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realizes that the sheriff, Hackstedde, has followed their horse and donkey tracks. He insists that Caleb and Prentiss head off in a different direction as he takes the horse and donkey to mislead the search team.

The next morning, the sheriff’s team catches up to George, just as he had expected. George pulls out a gun and asks that they take him to a nearby town and charge him formally for the crimes he has committed. Although he clearly poses no real threat, the sheriff shoots him in the leg, much to the horror of the group.

Meanwhile, Isabelle finds that George’s peanut crops have been intentionally set ablaze. She is unable to identify the men whom she sees riding away from the fire, and she realizes that the wind is pushing the fire directly towards the town. Many homes and businesses are consumed by the fire, including Wade’s, and August’s new bride perishes in the fire.

Because of infection, George’s leg is amputated, yet the infection continues to spread. He asks to be taken home, and Isabelle becomes his caretaker. Fever ravages his body and mind, and he has few lucid moments. During one evening when he is particularly clearheaded, Isabelle apologizes to George for her emotional distance over the years. He dies a few hours later.

Prentiss and Landry, unaware of the fire or of George’s death, settle for a while in Convent, which is still uncomfortably close to Old Ox. They become regular workers at a sugar mill and save money for their planned journey to the North. The owner of the mill offers Caleb a promotion, but Caleb insists that he is ready to move on. He suggests that the man offer the job to Prentiss if he is willing to stay. The next morning, Caleb wakes to find Prentiss preparing to leave.

Isabelle decides to use George’s land to help other freedmen. She offers plots to anyone who needs help transitioning into freedom and promises that they can keep all of the crops they produce on the land. In return, she asks that they will help her transform George’s fire-scarred peanut fields into productive crops once more. Mildred assists her in maintaining proper boundaries between the plots, and the two spend the majority of every day together.

Months later, Isabelle finally receives a much-awaited letter from Caleb. He refrains from giving her any specifics of his location or employment, afraid that the sheriff is still looking for him and Prentiss. Nonetheless, she has confirmation that the two have reached their destination and are safe. She clings to the hope that she will see her son again one day but accepts that in the meantime she will endure whatever life brings her.


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