In this melodious, atmospheric rendering
of an old-fashioned family tragedy, Julia Oliver shows maturity as a
novelist. Choosing to detail a work far more ambitious and explosive than
her previous books, her Depression-set novel Goodbye to the Buttermilk
Sky and her short story collection Seventeen Times as High as the
Moon, Ms. Oliver concentrates Music of Falling Water on a
family of four daughters in rural Alabama in the first-quarter of the 20th
century in Alabama.
Her town of Felder is very similar to
Montgomery between 1900 and 1918. The
use of the fictitious name is a device I don’t appreciate. It would have
been easier and more realistic to use the name, especially when street
names and other locations fit beautifully into the scheme of her story.
For this reader it becomes a distraction.
However, the story unfolds so smoothly, I
cannot help but admire the sleight-of-word magic the writer uses to take
us back into time with her myriad of interesting characters. As two
sisters travel in 1918 by motor car from Dexter to the old home place at
Hackberry Hill, the author seesaws to another, earlier time when the
family was together, when their sister Rhoda, an enchanting, poetic,
rollicking, mysterious fairy-like coquette danced through their world, and
when they were each growing up in her own inimitable way.
Ms. Oliver delineates each of the four
sisters, drawing with delicate, easy, deft artist’s strokes, fitting
characteristics together like the master she has become. Her story moves
with the rhythm of the automobile that runs out of water nearly halfway
back to Hackberry Hill. Gertrude’s husband Jason, who is driving the two
sisters back to the home place, where their third sister now lives, forgot
to fill his runningboard canteen with water before leaving Dexter. The
younger Lola walks down the road to a house they had passed to fetch
water. Upon returning, she makes up a story to jar Jason’s thoughts; he
takes her seriously, and she has a good laugh. Lola’s sense-of-humor is
thin but very nice, illuminating her character and how she was influenced
by her sister Rhoda, who ran away from home years ago and disappeared into
Again, the writer weaves a fine tapestry
as she poses question after question to her readers, answers just enough,
then plants more seeds of discontent to build her drama. Her universe is
small, but it is just as full of life as a Jane Austin or a Henry James or
a Bronte sister. As a result, her work has a worldly quality.
Music of Falling Water is not only a lovely title, it
resonates through the story as it unfolds from her first finely honed
words: “The early-spring meadow is a softer green than the money in her
new pocketbook.” As the mystery deepens, broadens, contaminates their
lives, we are caught up in the swirl of ghosts, both imagined and real.
The very first images in her prologue loom larger and larger in memory.
Julia Oliver’s writing expands, electrified with the story, luxuriating
in the details of a family filled with strong, deep, hidden emotional
underpinnings: each secret desire and previously unknown episode revealed
in Dickensian fashion as the drama heightens.
And the male characters blossom with as
much subtlety as the females: from the two brothers, Kathleen’s sons,
Harold and Ray, to the two husbands, Jason and George, and the Hackberry
Hill neighbor, Dr. Peter Whitney, whose plantation, George realizes, “is
like a beautiful, well-pampered woman. The cotton fields are lush. It’s
close to picking time. He doesn’t see any help around, but he and Jason
are probably being watched by dark, smoldering eyes.” The interplay
between the males and the males with the female characters is right-on.
Never does the author falter with a false move or motivation. When one
shyly withdraws, you know that is exactly what that character would do in
And then the young character of Daisy
Whitney, who lives as Dr. Peter and Miss Coralee’s daughter, enters the
picture to add depth and more mystery to the plot. All of Ms. Oliver’s
characters are fully and beautifully drawn, again like the world created
by Dickens, breathing life into an intriguing story that moves with a
quiet poetic strength from the very first to the last word.
Another tool in her arsenal that she uses
beautifully is the letter to communicate information and feelings. This is
a technique I think few novelists use properly or appropriately. Many
overuse it. But Ms. Oliver chooses her words with a poet’s ear and the
letters -- used with discretion -- from one character to another zings
home the emotions the author wishes to portray.
Music of Falling Water is one of those books that
should be an Oprah’s choice and it should be read and discussed by
reading groups across the globe. It blends perfectly the history of the
times, the texture of the time, and the injurious feelings of a family in
disarray. As the author pictures each of characters reacting to the
situation, the emotions are immediate and heartfelt.