Trouble the Water

"Trouble the Water" by Jacqueline Friedland

TROUBLE THE WATER. By Jacqueline Friedland. SparkPress. 352 pages. $16.95 paperback.

“Trouble the Water,” the debut novel from Jacqueline Friedland, shares its gospel-inspired title and Lowcountry settings with two other excellent volumes: the 2008 contemporary novel by Nicole Seitz and the 2019 historical novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff. Seemingly, the water is destined to be troubled often in fiction and in life.

Friedland’s historical novel is set in Charleston, some 20 years prior to the Civil War, in a time of grand opulence for some, the sufferings of enslavement for others, and precarious unease about the past, present and future for many.

On the cusp of adulthood, Abigail Milton, a teen-age factory worker of a debt-burdened family, is dispatched from her native Wigan, England, into the charitable custody of a family friend and fellow British countryman making a way for himself stateside in the import and export trade. Abby brings with her a stalwart self-reliance, earnest ambitions for becoming a governess, and the dark secret of her sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle Matthew.

Douglas Elling, Abby’s reluctant but duty-bound benefactor and host, carries the heartrending turmoil of his own tragic past as well. Three years prior, Douglas lost his wife and young daughter in a house fire, believed to be retribution for his abolitionist stance. In the aftermath, he has become an embittered recluse, aged beyond his years, adrift from the ideals and passions he once brought to his secret work with the underground railroad.

Friedland skillfully explores and exposes the PTSD symptoms of her deeply wounded protagonists through thoughtfully accomplished interior monologues as each navigates distrust and misreading of the intentions of the other. Douglas’ instincts to gruffly protect Abby from harm and gossip are misconstrued as overbearing and racist. Abby’s wonderment with her new home, far removed from her hardscrabble upbringing, is taken at first as hopeless naivete.

But revelations and confessions, and a shared love of Shakespearean literature, allow the unlikely pairing to see each other anew and to recognize in one another to possibility of a kindred spirit and, moreover, of redemption.

Friedland’s novel falls short of making the city of Charleston itself an essential character in the narrative, and while it delivers a satisfying comeuppance for Abby’s abusive uncle, the slaveholding Cunninghams and conniving eldest daughter Cora Rea, in particular, come through largely unscathed.

But on balance, Friedland’s enjoyable debut delivers a graciously written character study of two lost souls in dire need of healing and, if united and then reunited, capable of doing more good for this world together than either can alone.

Reviewer Jonathan Haupt is executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center and co-editor of "Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy."