We don’t have enough coming-of-age novels for girls and women, nowhere near enough Jane Eyres and distaff Huck Finns.
Anne Rivers Siddons offers a worthy entry in “Sweetwater Creek” and the thoroughly admirable Emily Parmenter.
This is Siddons’ best work – better than her million-seller “Peachtree Road,” which describes Atlanta and its rich residents’ reluctant changes during the civil rights era. Emily is the magical ingredient. Her endearing bravery elevates the novel, lifting it from that put-down category tagged women’s fiction or family drama.
Emily is a 12-year-old who has dealt with her mother’s abandonment and a beloved brother’s death. Her father, Walter, and remaining two brothers, obsessed with hunting and the business side of training Boykin spaniels, barely notice her existence.
But Emily is terrific anyway, a wise and wonderful child, thanks to her own abilities. She has taken in love and poetry through her friendship with her dying brother, Buddy. She has spun love and magic, communicating with and caring for her spaniel, Elvis, and Sweetwater Plantation’s puppies.
Even cat people will be charmed by Elvis and Emily. The Boykin spaniel is her best playmate, protector and confidant. He does not fail her as adults do.
And Emily is fully at home and able to find solace in the low country’s peaceable kingdom of tidal creeks and marshes, shrimp and dolphins, hawks and eagles: “The Wadmalaw, running deep in full tide, wrapped her in trembling waterlight, and she felt full and healed.”
Readers will recognize from Siddons’ previous books the employment of a rebellious belle to power the plot. “Peachtree Road” had Lucy; “Nora, Nora,” had Nora; “Sweetwater Creek” has Lulu.
Lulu asks her wealthy parents if she may spend the summer at Sweetwater, training dogs. Walter is thrilled; he sees Lulu as keys to the kingdom, his entree to the plantation-hunting society he wants praising and buying his dogs.
Emily thinks she has found a friend, a teacher, a mother-substitute, a role model. But Emily, not Lulu, is the one with strength of character. And Emily is the one who can reach inside – to the voice of Buddy, still living in her.
The way Siddons uses Buddy and Elvis as Emily’s guides works. Their advice is presented simply, as wisdom within.
What doesn’t work are the men. Walter earns sympathy only when Emily is generous or pitying in her assessment. Emily’s living brothers are just bodies placed at the dining-room table. Lulu’s evil boyfriend, Yancey Byrd, is an incubus and a plot device.
On the other hand, this is Emily’s book. And I recommend her.
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