American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SISTER WATER (1993). Nancy Willard’s (1936- ) novel depicts the lives of Jessie and Henry Woolman and their daughters, Martha and Ellen, in the Great Lakes* region. Devastated by her husband’s death, Ellen is courted by wealthy developer Harvey Mack, who wants to acquire her father’s property. Sam Theopolis, hired as companion for the widowed and confused Jessie, eases into the family’s life. When Sam is charged with the drowning death of an unidentified “water woman,” Martha’s son-in-law, Elmer, defends him. Things took grim for Sam until two Pawquacha Indians present new evidence, and surprising outcomes result.

Willard employs water imagery to link nature and spirit, the living and the dead. Skilled in water occupations from ancestral times, the Pawquachas of Drowning Bear, Wisconsin, have access to the spirit world through springs feeding the Huron River and Lake Michigan. When needed, they bring evidence from the dead to the living. If threatened, they change into river creatures. A network of underground streams, representing the invisible unity of all things, connects the Great Lakes. Henry Woolman’s protection of one such stream flowing through his Ann Arbor basement museum first draws Jessie to him. In contrast, Harvey Mack hopes to bury the stream under a sumptuous mall. The “water woman” is associated with death, and Sam’s openhearted exchange of gifts with her in the graveyard leads to his mistaken arrest for murder. It was Harvey who, having ignored her warning appearance in his aquarium videotape, has a drunken encounter with her that causes her death and ultimately will result in his own. Ellen learns that the Pawquacha water woman has stories to mend hearts, and with her mythic aid, she envisions a mighty river. On one bank, her father helps her husband, Mike, upstream toward death. On the other, children throng downstream into life. Ellen joins the children.

Janet Ray Edwards