I started a progress report on The Water is Wide a little over a week ago, and shortly thereafter I actually started making solid progress on it and didn’t want to stop to write about it. I’ve been having my usual late summer/early fall reading malaise for the past month or so. It seems like this is the time of year when my reading goals all fall off the damn rails. This year, I blame a spotted brown and white puppy who has been keeping me on my toes since mid-July, as well as a month where my only long stretch of days off came at the very end. In addition, I’ve been fascinated with social media and internet shopping more than usual for the past few weeks. I hate it when that happens. But I digress. I’m supposed to be talking about PAT CONROY MONTH!!!!
The Water is Wide was my introduction to Pat Conroy back in early 1992 during my sophomore Honors English class. I remember loving it, for all the reasons I loved every Pat Conroy book I read in my teens. It was funny, it was hyperbolic, and something about Conroy’s prose struck a chord in my adolescent soul—so many emotions articulated in such a detailed way. And then sometime while we were reading the book, or shortly after we finished it, Pat Conroy came and spoke at my high school. It was amazing. He talked about growing up Catholic and in Catholic schools. He was hilarious, too. I wish that I had the issue of our alumni magazine that published a transcript of the talk he gave, because I would love to read it again. I haven’t reread The Water is Wide since 1992, and it seems fitting that the last of his early works that I’m rereading for PAT CONROY MONTH!!!! is the first one I ever read, which was also his first major published work. From here on out it’s Beach Music and South of Broad. It’s entirely possible that I’ll reread The Lords of Discipline again before I tackle South of Broad again….
So, here’s the deal, gang. In 1969, a young Pat Conroy decides to teach on Yamacraw Island, an island off the coast of South Carolina. He wanted to go into the Peace Corps, but plans fell through, and the next best thing that presented itself stateside was Yamacraw. (The name of the island was actually Daufuskie Island; I’m not sure why Pat decided to change the name of the island when he wrote this one, and then use the right name in future memoirs, but he did.) The kids of Yamacraw were all black, and many of them were illiterate, though they all regularly attended school. Pat, the young idealist, was appalled by this state of affairs, and immediately set out to remedy the situation. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, and Pat develops many unique methods of teaching that will capture the attention and imagination of the kids. He brings in guest lecturers from the mainland, organizes field trips, tries to make everything into a game, tries everything. He becomes their friend, their uncle. He ingratiates himself with their families. Eventually he gets fired for his efforts. I suspect that this book would be especially meaningful for a teacher, and Bethany’s review from 2012 confirms my suspicion. This book is also meaningful as a document of race relations in the South in the late 1960’s. Given the things that are still going on in our country in regards to race relations, I know we have come a long way, but I also know that we have a long way to go before there is equality amongst the races, and Conroy’s view of these things was simplistic—he thought all we needed to do was integrate the schools and things would be just fine. If he only knew back in 1972 how much would change and how much would stay the same. I’d actually love to hear his thoughts on this subject, and how they have changed with the passing of years. Here’s Conroy’s theory of how things are going to change in the South from the last two pages of The Water is Wide. You’ll find that it’s vintage Conroy, but a muted version of his modern, more florid prose. I love the simple way he looks at things here, and wish I didn’t know that the reality of race in the South (hell, the entire country) was, and will likely always be, much more complicated than the beautiful way my old friend Pat describes it here. “The town of Beaufort continues to undergo change, not revolutionary change, but gradual and slow change, like the erosion of a high bluff during spring tides. A kind of brotherhood hides beneath the shadows of columns and the mute verandahs—unspoken, inchoate, but present nevertheless. There is no widespread denunciation of the old values, but the erosion of these same values is already irreparable. For ten years I have been part of the town and have seen her grow more human and her people grow more tolerant as the past has crumbled and the old dreams burned out in a final paroxysm of sputtering paralysis and rage. The South of humanity and goodness is slowly rising out of the fallen temple of hatred and white man’s nationalism. The town retains her die-hards and nigger-haters and always will. Yet they grow older and crankier with each passing day. When Beaufort digs another four hundred holes in her plentiful graveyards, deposits there the rouged and elderly corpses, and covers them with the sandy, lowcountry soil, then another whole army of the Old South will be silenced and not heard from again. The religion of the Confederacy and apartheid will one day be subdued by the passage of years. The land will be the final arbiter of human conflict; no matter how intense the conflict, the victory of earth and grave will be undeniable and complete. The eyes of the town are turning with excruciating reluctance toward the new flow and the new era. The eyes seem a bit brighter and less clouded with hate (257-8).” I’m going to cease and desist my discussion of the topic of race as it relates to Conroy’s tenure on Yamacraw Island now, because I fear I will not be able to do it justice, and I need to move on to other important things, namely, poking fun at Pat Conroy.
As I was reading along, it occurred to me that this novel/memoir is written with a very irregular timeline—this is something I had forgotten I knew about this book the first time around. And while Conroy’s hopping about through time in his year on the island fascinated me in 1992 (and made me feel like I was reading modern, adult, complex literature), in 2015 it was driving me crazy! I wanted to say to Pat, “Could you stick with chronological order when relating anecdotes, please??” Generally, the story does move forward, but in a decidedly round about way, with lots of detours forward and backward in time. One paragraph, Conroy is writing about a trip to see the Harlem Globetrotters play in March, then in the next he’s talking about a Valentine’s Day party he and his wife threw for the kids at their house in Beaufort, and the next it’s March again, and someone’s grandmother has died. I think that the book would have ultimately flowed better if it had been written with a more straight timeline—less episodic would have worked better for me here, because it was difficult to relate events to other events temporally the way it was set up. And I actually think that the story of his run-ins with the school board and all the other administrators would have been strengthened if I had known what exactly was going on with the kids on the island simultaneously. It also would have been nice to know what became of the Yamacraw folks—the book was written only a year or two after the events, so I know this would have been difficult, though I find it hard to believe that Conroy would have just severed ties with these people who meant to much to him at the time. I wonder if there is anything about them in The Death of Santini. I know he talked about writing The Water is Wide. Hmmm. Will have to look into that.
Overall, I did really enjoy this book, but it does reek of first novel and young man idealism. I think there are stylistic things that could be changed to enhance my enjoyment, but it was quite good as it stands right now. I’ve believed for years that Pat Conroy is a far better memoirist, than a novelist, and rereading The Water is Wide further convinces me of the truth of that statement. It’s rough, it’s not Conroy’s mature voice, but it resounds with me—I loved to read Pat’s diatribes about education and morals, loved reading about his attempts to take down the school board. I hope there are still people on this earth as idealistic as twenty-four year old Pat Conroy. I hope we aren’t all cynical people.
And one last thing, just for fun. Remember how I said that Pat Conroy came and spoke at SI? Well, I got to have him sign my copy of The Water is Wide. Here is a picture of the autograph. It’s just a crappy old Mass Market edition of the book, but I’ll treasure it forever.