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The Water Dancers
The Water Dancers
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Powell's Books Powell's Books

Terry gives an overview of the book:

A tale of class and race set in the post-World War II of Northern Michigan. Drawing from the rarely intersecting worlds of the Native American population and that of the wealthy summer people who seasonally inhabit the lands once owned by tribes, THE WATER DANCERS is a love story between the orphaned Odawa girl, Rachel Winnappee, and the morphine-addicted scion of the family who hires her, first as a maid, then as a savior for their son.
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A tale of class and race set in the post-World War II of Northern Michigan. Drawing from the rarely intersecting worlds of the Native American population and that of the wealthy summer people who seasonally inhabit the lands once owned by tribes, THE WATER DANCERS is a love story between the orphaned Odawa girl, Rachel Winnappee, and the morphine-addicted scion of the family who hires her, first as a maid, then as a savior for their son.

Read an excerpt »

Chapter One


For six weeks, Rachel had been working at the Marches’ house— six weeks of lining drawers, airing closets, carrying laundry, and she stillcouldn’t keep the back stairs straight. One flight led from the kitchen to thedining room, the other up two floors to the bedrooms. Even the hallways confused her, twisting or stoppingaltogether. Wings and porchessplayed out. Doors banged intoeach other. Twelve bedrooms and no one to use them but an old woman, the hopeof one son, the ghost of another, and a girl who had died in infancy.

Even Mr. March would only come toward the end of August, ifhe came at all. It was ahouse of women. Since thebeginning of the war, women had prepared the food, cleaned the floors, kept thebooks, given the orders, folded the sheets, scraped the dough off butcher’sblock. Then there was theironing. Rachel had scorched threedamask napkins before she got it right. The Kelvinator in the pantry made her crazy with its humming. The oven smelled of gas. Something was always boiling, fuelingthe humidity. When she had leftthe convent that morning to come to work, the air was so close, the dormitorywhere the girls slept had grown ripe with sweat.

“Sister told us you could iron,” said the cook, Ella Mae.

Her old, black eyes rested on Rachel’s braids as thoughthere might be bugs in there or worse.

“Remember,” Ella Mae went on, shaking a finger, their darkeyes meeting, “the Marches have took you in for charity.”

Charity. EvenSister Marie had made that clear from the start. Our campanile, our statue of Mary — all gifts from LydiaMarch. You may think she haseverything, but fortune is a two-edged sword. The Marches have given God a son and a baby girl. They will pay you four dollars aweek.

The Marches’ house smelled of must, camphor, lilacs anddecayed fish that wafted up from the beach at night. Located on the very tip of a crooked finger of land, it hadthe best view of all the houses on Beck’s Point. Who Beck had been, no one seemed to remember, but one of thegirls at the convent told Rachel it used to be a holy place where spiritsdwelled and no one dared to live. Now it was chock full of summer houses, all white and lined up likepearls on a necklace.

Across the harbor, the town of Moss Village sat at the baseof limestone bluffs, residue from an ancient, salty sea. Then came the glacier,molding and carving Lake Michigan like a totem of land, the Indians at thebottom, then the French, a smattering of Polish farmers, the priests, fur traders,fishermen, lumberjacks and, later, the summer people.

And always the church. Even after the first one burned, the Jesuits built a second, then athird, its steeple rising above everything else. Next to it — a large lump of a brick building full of girls,some small, some older, all dark. All sent or left or brought by the nuns to learn American ways and toforget all things Indian. No more dancing to spirits with suspicious,tongue-twisting names. No more clothes of deerskin. Put the girls to work, and when they were big enough, somesummer family — preferably Catholic — would take them.

Beyond the tip of the point, the water widened into a bay,the trees and hills beyond the town of Chibawasee faint upon the oppositeshore. From the southern edge, the bay extended west toward the horizon. To the north of Beck’s Point was theharbor — docks and trimmed lawns, raked beaches, moored boats — the best portbetween Grand Traverse and Mackinaw. From every window, Rachel could see water,hear water, smell it, taste it. Not like Horseshoe Lake, which was small, tranquil, almost a pond.

“So much water,” Rachel said to Ella Mae’s daughter who washelping her with the fruit.

“Like the flood itself,” said Mandy, who could notswim. “Gives me the heebie-jeebies.” A girl had drowned once, she toldRachel. Years before. A girl from the convent.

“I know how to swim,” said Rachel.

Today, they were helping Ella Mae make cherry pie. Ella Mae worked the flour into butteruntil her thick, brown arms were gloved with white. Rachel pitted the fruit. It was July, and the cherries brought up from Traverse Citywere at their best. The juice randown her arms. Whenever Ella Mae looked away, the girl hungrily lickedthem. She was always hungry, evenwhen her stomach was full. As achild, she had licked stones and dirt, ravenous for their minerals as if shecould consume the earth itself.

Mandy was watching her. “How old are you?”

“Sixteen,” Rachel said, running her tongue around herlips. She was never quite sure.

“Sixteen? Ithought you and me’s the same age.”

“How old are you?”

Seventeen,”said Mandy.

The air filled with sugar, butter, cherry. Because of thewar, it had been hard to get butter these last few years. That and gasoline. Stockings. Things Rachel hadn’t evenknown to miss.

“Chocolate,” said Ella Mae, listing therationed items. “Try to find that.”

Ella Mae had taught Rachel to roll the chilled dough outthin and cut it so as to waste little. Rachel wadded up doughy crumbs and put them in her pocket to eatlater. She wondered if Ella Maewould taste like chocolate if Rachel licked her. Same with Mandy and Jonah, Ella Mae’s husband. Their skin was darker than hers, whichwas the color of milky cocoa.

Outside, Mrs. March, her gray hair coiled on top of herhead, pointed to the empty fishpond. Victor, the gardener followed her finger, shrugged. After the war, he seemed to be saying. After the war we will fill the pondwith fish, the lake with boats, the house with laughter.

A guest was arriving that afternoon. “Before the war, we filled all fiveguestrooms,” Ella Mae said. “Thesenator from Ohio stayed a week.”

Mandy dipped into the bowl and swiped a cherry. Rachelalmost reached out and touched Mandy’s lips, they were so big and wide andblack. Where’d you get those lips?she was about to ask, but Mandy spoke first, fingering Rachel’s thick, blackbraids. “Where’d you get that hair?” she said. “I could make it better.”

Rachel touched her hair. Unbraided, it curled down her spine andspoke of something not Indian. French, perhaps. The furtrader who had taken her grandmother as his common-law wife.

“You’re plain,” Mandy said. “That nose of yours. Where’d you get that nose?”

Even Rachel had to admit her nose wasdifferent, not flat and squished like most Odawas, but longer and beaked like abird of prey.

“And your cheeks!” said Mandy. She blew out her own until they were rounder than the girl’s.

Rachel looked at Mandy’s head — twentytiny braids to her own thick two. It had been so long since someone had touched her, combed her hair. Inthe churchyard there was a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Sometimes, the girl wanted to crawlright into Mary’s arms, her face so sad like she knew she’d have to give herbaby up.

Jesus died for your sins, the nuns told Rachel.

The Marches’ daughter had died in thegreat influenza. There was anempty crib in one of the bedrooms, the curtains perpetually drawn. Had the Virgin Mary known her ownsweet-faced son would die? Perhapsher own grief deafened her to Rachel’s pleas to send her home to HorseshoeLake.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Rachel said, letting Mandy touch herhair. Rachel’s hands had grownsticky with cherries. Jesus bleedsfor me, she thought as she picked up a towel, reddened it with her palms.

terry-gamble's picture

Note from the author coming soon...

About Terry

Born and raised in Pasadena with a childhood that included summers spent in Michigan and frozen in time.  Much of Terry's early years were spent trying to decode what was really going on.  Abandoning that effort, she chose to make up reality instead.  Books were a cheap and...

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Published Reviews


"The Water Dancers," a story about two very different people, the after-effects of war, love, loss and liberation, is crafted so well that readers will feel the work that went into every page yet...


 In this luminous first novel, Gamble imparts a remarkable sense of place while launching a searing indictment of prejudice, all the while demonstrating a restrained, understated lyricism that only serves...