Summer is at its apex and so, too, is the heat index. What better time to take refuge on a shaded veranda with an ice-cold drink and a white-hot book?
Though author Nathan Harris, 29, might opt to turn to works by some of his favorites—such as James McBride or Toni Morrison—to while away the lazy, hazy days, it’s his own freshman novel, The Sweetness of Water, that’s on the seasonal reading lists of iconic thought leaders Oprah Winfrey and former president Barack Obama.
The book, a work of historical fiction set during the days following the Civil War and at the commencement of Reconstruction, hauntingly echoes the zeitgeist of 2022 America. It touches on themes of race and reconciliation; the struggle of suddenly freed slaves (who had labored to build others’ wealth) to forge new lives without any recompense; and a love between two men—soldiers—that defied society’s norms and thus, had to exist in darkness.
All this melds together in compelling and poetic prose that could propel Harris into the lauded company of those aforementioned writers that he, himself, admires. The Oregon native, already is building his literary bona fides, with Sweetness gaining resounding praise from such bellwethers as The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Post.
“You spend your whole life writing in a room by yourself, and your entire universe is you and this book and these characters that nobody else needs, then suddenly they're set free, and you have this audience, but, you never think that people like Obama or Oprah are going to enjoy it and appreciate it and want to share it with people,” shares Harris, who received the Kidd Prize for fiction as an undergrad at The University of Oregon. He also was a finalist for the Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, and currently is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his Master of Fine Arts degree.
Harris notes that it was the stories he read growing up that really connected with him and helped influenced his own personal literary work. “I can remember writing some epic fantasy when I was in elementary school on the computer and my brothers being like, ‘That kid’s weird,’” he says, jokingly. “So it's always been in my blood, I guess, and I just developed it over time and here we are.”
And though he says he would have gone with a contemporary tale for his debut novel if such a story had presented itself to him, he speaks quite passionately about how works of historical fiction have moved him. McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is one such work. “[McBride's] so playful on the page, willing to just take people from history and add color to their character; and, he sort of does whatever he wants… I just think that he gave himself license to do that—and he gave me license to go back in time, create my own characters, and do what I wanted to, as well,” Harris explains.
Harris' own novel’s well-drawn characters, pulled from America’s collective past, seem to hold a mirror to our tempest-tossed present. While the young author notes that for him it's always about the story “first and foremost,” he also acknowledges that he doesn’t’ live in a vacuum. “I think good historical fiction always speaks to the present, and I think that so much of what was going on then, is still going on now,” he says. “These issues between the races, issues between classes, and people from a certain class feeling like they’re losing the exclusivity of that class and having to share that with people who don't look like them—dealing with ‘the other.’ I guess I saw writing about this time period as a way to have my readers engage with those issues that are so pressing right now, but with a little bit of detachment from it,” he adds. “To see it happening in the past gives you a little space, and then I think it sort of clicks and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is still happening today.’ I think that’s a beautiful way to have people participate in the conversation without hitting them over the head with it.”
The vivid characters Harris created —especially, the newly emancipated brothers Landry and Prentiss—resonated with Oprah, literature's most celebrated influencer. “As the best writers can do, Nathan takes us back in time, and helps us to feel we are right there with Prentiss and Landry as they get their first taste of freedom. I rooted for them, and feared for them, too,” she said in an announcement of her latest book club pick.
The brilliant wordsmith also sees his readers connecting with the other characters and their struggles—whether it’s grieving landowner George, who he describes as an “outcast,” or George's wife Isabelle, who is in the throes of grief as well.
“I think one of the reasons the book is resonating so much is that people are experiencing this moment of empathy with those portrayed in Sweetness, even if [the character] is different from who they are,” Harris opines. Perhaps then, he says, people will see they may have things in common with that neighbor, who might not look like them, and have them think “We need to come together and all try to be better. Move on and heal the wounds that have been wrought upon our country, and, on some level, the world as well.”
Watch a clip of Harris’ conversation with Oprah on Oprah’s Book Club, below:
The Sweetness of Water; Little, Brown and Company; $16.80 Hardcover.