What do North Carolina pirates and the daughter of Thomas Jefferson’s vice president have in common?
They are both an important part of North Carolina author Michael Parker’s recent book, “The Watery Part of the World.”
Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia was shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina in 1812 and may have been taken in by the Outer Banks residents or maybe captured and killed by pirates or just lost at sea.
Those are real possibilities
Building on what might have happened, Michael Parker creates a story that takes Theodosia through a horrifying struggle with cruel land based pirates on the Outer Banks.
In this story, the pirates butcher most of the crew and passengers. Theodosia survives only to find herself in a community of pirates run by a terroristic dictator. Without apology, these thieves draw ships to the shore where they will run aground. They attach a lantern to the neck of an old horse and walk it up and down the beach. At night the bobbing light looks like another ship sailing in a safe area. Nags Head gets its name from this activity.
Michael Parker’s fictional land-based pirates on the Outer Banks are as evil and brutal a bunch as you could ever imagine. Eventually, Theodosia escapes to another island, called Yaupon, where she settles and has a family.
More than 150 years later in 1970 two of her descendants are the last remaining white inhabitants on Yaupon Island. They are sisters, one named Theodosia, but called Whaley, and the other Maggie. The only other island inhabitant is Woodrow, a descendent of a freed slave who had served the original Theodosia. On the island, they are surrounded by the church and other buildings that remind them every day of life when the island was home to a village full of people
The lives of these three and their relationships with each other become the central elements of a richly complex story that is impossible to summarize briefly, except to say that it features the uncomfortable commitments of all three to each other and to the island.
Race is one of the threads as Woodrow and the two women juggle their close relationships with the racial mores of coastal North Carolina. For instance, Woodrow still lives in the “Colored Town” of the old village, making it inconvenient for the sisters to reach him some times when they need him.
A couple of times a year the threesome receive visits from university researchers who ask questions about history and life on the island. They record the answers and preserve the distinctive way the threesome speak. The threesome’s answers are not always totally honest and their brogues become more pronounced for the outsiders whom they call “the Tape Recorders.”
Maggie is sensual and her attraction to men once lead to a romance with a much younger man. When he left the island and she, at first, did not follow, the relationship ended sadly and tragically for her, haunting her for the rest of her life.
Finally, there is the memory of a greater tragedy, when the “white sisters” abandoned Woodrow’s wife in a storm, resulting in her death, a loss that Woodrow could never forget or completely forgive.
Michael Parker teaches writing at UNC-Greensboro. His six prior books have established his reputation as one of North Carolina’s best writers. His beautiful writing in “The Watery Part of the World” makes every page of that book a pleasure. All this makes this reader eagerly wait his next book “Five Thousand Dollar Car” scheduled for next year by its publisher, Chapel Hill’s Algonquin Books.