40 Days of Book Praise, Day 28

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 28, Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

black water

An idealistic young woman named Kelly attends her best friend’s 4th of July party on a place called Grayling Island. Also attending the party is “The Senator,” a big, powerful, boozy politician currently separated from his wife. Kelly is thrilled to meet The Senator. She knows all about him—she follows his political work and even wrote her Senior thesis on him. Pretty, and a little shy, Kelly is surprised and flattered when The Senator flirts with her. He invites her on a walk on the beach, kisses her, and asks her to ditch the party for dinner at his hotel. Kelly is not a particularly worldly young woman, but even she knows what he means by “dinner.” It is out of character for her to go off with a man she just met, but The Senator is her hero–and who knows what such a connection could mean to her future? As Kelly packs an overnight bag, her friend warns her not to go. She is afraid Kelly will regret it.

Regret puts it mildly. All of the above happens before this novella begins. The live action of the story happens in The Senator’s car, which is slowly sinking in a murky pond. The Senator took a back road and, driving drunk and too fast, plowed through the guard rail of a wooden bridge. The car landed passenger side down and Kelly, strapped in her seat, is badly injured. The Senator is not. He opens his door and, using Kelly’s body for support, pushes himself up and out to safety. Kelly grasps at his leg so he won’t leave her and is left holding his shoe. She continues to hold onto his shoe, certain The Senator will return to rescue her. Hurt and delirious, she reviews her brief young life as the black water slowly rises around her. Eventually Kelly realizes The Senator is not coming back. Her hero has abandoned her.

Why is Black Water a good read for women? Writers are often asked where they get their ideas for stories. This one is a no-brainer. Joyce Carol Oates may have changed the names, but The Senator is Edward Kennedy and Black Water is a fictional account of Mary Jo Kopechne’s drowning at Chappaquiddick. Published in 1993, twenty-three years after the Chappaquiddick incident, the book gives the victim a voice that is hard to forget. There are lessons to be learned when an idealistic young person looks up to an older and experienced one, when esteem is misplaced and influence is misused. As her friend warned, Kelly’s impulsive act is regrettable in the extreme. Her mistake was to confuse experience with wisdom, charm with character, and power with courage. Her time alone in the car, as she comes to understand that her hopeful future is now impossible, is heartbreaking and haunting.