By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Here's the beauty of Water Dancers: It can be all kinds of things to all kinds of people.
Terry Gamble's elegantly written, handsomely constructed debut novel is: An upstairs-downstairs saga in a supposedly classless society; a romance; a love letter to tree huggers; a weepy girl meets/gets/loses boy story; an up-close and personal look at the social changes that began after World War II and continued into the Vietnam era; a look at lifestyles long gone; a voyeur's guide to lives of the very rich; a voyeur's guide to the lives of the very poor; the story of white Europeans gobbling up land belonging to American Indians; a traveler's guide to a Northern Michigan enclave of "summer people."
Whew! Hardly time to squeeze a plot in, you're thinking.
Gamble, a fifth-generation descendant of P&G co-founder James Gamble, grew up in Northern California (her father left here 60-something years ago for college and never came back), but spent summers in Harbor Point on Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay, a wealthy community of summer cottages - cottage is a code word for 10 bedrooms and a servants' wing - owned by big-money types who could afford to take summers off. It's the model for Dancers' Beck's Point and very similar to Charlevoix, where a lot of Cincinnati's old money summers.
It's also here we meet the upstairs-downstairs principals:
Upstairs: The March family - rock-ribbed matriarch Lydia, rosary in one hand, rules of social convention in the other; even more rock-ribbed patriarch Charles; son Woody, freshly home from World War II, missing a leg, sporting a bad attitude and gleefully giving in to his newly developed morphine addiction; son Lip, killed in the war, but very much a towering presence.
Downstairs: The Winnapee family and other members of the Horseshoe Band of the Odawa tribe, all so destitute they live in shacks along the shores of Horseshoe Lake, make their own clothes, eat what they can kill and make barely livable wages working for the summer people.
Rachael Winnapee, 16 and given to licking ancient stones to taste what her ancestors once tasted, is the centerpiece, hired on for the summer of Mr. Woody March's return from the service. For those three months she's pretty much the only one willing to deal with his attitude (bad) and his drug habit (worse). Heaven knows Woody's fiancee, the ice princess Miss Elizabeth, isn't going to deal with it. Or even acknowledge it.
And wouldn't you just know it? In short order Woody and Rachel fall in love and Rachel gets pregnant. She's hustled out of town, as people did in the '40s. Likewise, Woody also is hustled out of town because, well, one simply doesn't dally with the help.
Rachel and son Ben return 10 years later and hook up with the March family a few years after that, but no one knows Woody is Ben's father. Not even Woody or Ben.
Sounds so pat, eh? So black and white? So easy to condemn the March's upper-class snobbery while sanctifying Rachel's sacrifice? Well, think again. It's not easy at all.
Gamble, although a part of the Marches' world, draws all her characters so skillfully and with such depth that no matter how much you'd like to take sides, it's impossible. The Marches, shackled to their upbringing, are only doing what they've been taught all their lives.
It would be so nice and tons of fun to hate this family that can't even tell you what the servants look like because the help is pretty much invisible.
Trouble is, Gamble won't let you hate them.
Nor does she let you worry and fret much about poor, long-suffering, used-and-discarded Rachel. She paints her as too strong and independent. A survivor from the word go.
What Gamble does let you do is observe and fully understand the massive social changes between WWII and Vietnam by showing the evolution of the Marches, the Winnapees and the relationships between them. Up close and personal. Painfully personal at times.
"I could never have written this book when I was 21," Gamble says. "Life is so black and white at that age that I'm not sure I how I would have painted the characters. And also, there was a sense of entitlement at that time that I could never have understood when I was younger. I do now.
"So much of the book is about the uneasy coexistence of different groups in those summer communities and the very sharp divide between them. At least at the opening of the period.
"Things like that change, and one of my goals was to show the change in those 25 years, but to do it in a very personal way so that it would show the impact on actual people, not on institutions."
She did that, and never once got preachy - it would be so easy - or sanctimonious about the nobility of the poor. That would be pretty easy too.
Instead, she delivers a cast of carefully drawn characters, warts and all, you actually want to meet and get to know better.
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