The historical Theodosia, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, was lost at sea in 1813 after boarding a ship from South Carolina to New York. (Readers may recognize her as the tragic heroine of Anya Seton’s classic My Theodosia.) The Watery Part of the World picks up the frayed ends of her life story. In this version, she survives a pirate attack by feigning madness and takes shelter with a hermit on the Outer Banks. He’s the only man inclined to help her of his own free will.
On this remote barrier island off North Carolina’s coast, survival is precarious. Theo’s knowledge of Latin and Greek, and her extensive training in the social graces, proves useless in an environment where people rely on scavenging (or “progging,” in the delightful local lingo) for driftwood and other things that wash up on shore. A portrait of her long-ago self, the only item left from her former existence, symbolizes her proud history and the mission – restoring her father’s good name – that she can’t let herself forget.
In alternating sections set in 1970 and earlier, Parker skillfully delves into the inner lives of the island’s last remaining residents: two elderly sisters, Theo’s fifth-generation descendants, and the black man, Woodrow Thornton, who helps them with their household needs. His family has a longstanding tradition of service to theirs, a pattern he resents but follows anyway.
Whaley is stiff and proper, a silly pretension when there’s nobody around to impress. Her moody and passionate sister Maggie envisions herself as Virginia Dare, believing she’ll meet with disaster if she ever leaves her home. While Whaley reads about the curious outside world in newspaper ads, Maggie can’t forget her failed love affair with a younger man thirty years before.
Despite the 150-odd years separating them, the storyline glides smoothly between their time and Theo’s. In both eras, Parker periodically revisits the novel’s most decisive scenes, each time with more shocking impact.
In places, the text has an archaic syntax that reflects the modern trio’s circumstances, living isolated from the mainland for such a long time. Two anthropologists visit them every spring to record their peculiar dialect and the outlandish stories of island lore they choose to tell them – an act they partially put on for the outsiders’ benefit. Caught by fear and habit, Maggie wonders if she’ll ever be able to reveal their real story.
Dependent on one another for reasons they can’t explain, the black man and "his white women sisters" cling to their roles, the same ones held by their forebears, like they would to a lifeline. Parker writes of their complicated dilemmas with grace, care, and not a little empathy. Even with the deftness of the human characterizations, though, the wind-scoured, lonely island has the strongest and most steady presence. One knows it will be around long after everyone has gone.
The Watery Part of the World was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill on April 26th ($23.95, hardcover, 261pp).