Some promises deserve to be broken. At least that's the conclusion reached by Rachel Winnappee, the young Native American woman at the center of Terry Gamble's luminous debut novel, The Water Dancers.
At the close of World War II, 17-year-old Rachel works as a domestic at the Lake Michigan summer home of the Marches, a rich, white banking family that has suffered its own losses: a daughter to influenza, a son to the war, and the leg and spirit of the Marches' last remaining son, Woody. Soon, Mrs. March asks Rachel to be Woody's nurse, and the two find themselves drawn to each other, resulting in Rachel's unplanned, secret pregnancy.
Rachel eventually decides to raise her son, Ben, on her own among the Odawa Indians, and she makes a deal with Mrs. March that initially appears mutually beneficial. However, as more tragedies ensue, and Ben himself is mentally and physically damaged by the Vietnam War, Rachel feels compelled to re-open old wounds and confront the people, and the truth, she promised to avoid.
Gamble manages to represent many of the racial, economic and political complexities of Native American community life without preaching, and her prose is fast-paced but capable of evoking strong images. Her graceful style achieves its ends on multiple levels, making The Water Dancers a vivid reading experience that, to its great credit, never becomes predictable. Jenn McKee is a writer in Berkley, Michigan.