In The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, the main themes include how racial injustice is perpetuated during peacetime and the conviction that love often requires sacrifice.
Harris begins with the premise that both individual and institutional changes are needed for a society to overcome a legacy of injustice, discrimination, and violence that has been attributed to racism. As the characters struggle with the massive social transformations that have followed the abolition of slavery, they also must face the reality that the underlying problems were not solved either by abolition or by the country’s reunification after the Civil War.
The ongoing discrimination against African American people is revealed both through extralegal activities and within the legal system. One clear example that justice is denied to Black people is the killing of Landry. The violent attack that caused his death is ignored by white law enforcement because he is Black. In contrast, Prentiss’s impulsive act of disrespect is punished because of his race and that of the man he targeted.
The deep fraternal love between Landry and Prentiss undergirds the sacrifices the men are willing to make for each other. Some individual white characters also manifest efforts to overcome the deeply entrenched social biases. This is seen through the character of George, who stands up to the brutal Weblers and ultimately sacrifices his own life to help both his son, Caleb, and Prentiss escape.