The Prudent MarinerBy Leslie Walker Williams. University of Tennessee Press, 312 pp, $24.95, softcover
Some books are about secrets kept. Some books are about secrets revealed. But in The Prudent Mariner, a superb first novel by American writer Leslie Walker Williams (now living in Vancouver), the most interesting thing about secrets is how and why we keep them.
Set on the coast of Georgia in the 1960s, the novel unfolds primarily from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl, Riddley Cross—a solver of puzzles and seeker of truth—who inherits a postcard collection from her grandfather containing a horrifying picture of a pretty young white girl against the backdrop of a lynching. Riddley doesn’t know that the girl is her grandmother, Adele, in 1913, nor is she aware of the role Adele played in this event.
Riddley’s urge to know both the identity of the girl and why her family has this postcard propels the narrative and uncovers the real secret at the core of this novel: how a family, a community, and a culture can bury brutal truths under layers of manners and civility. Until Riddley tries to solve the mystery of the postcard, the lynching “will seldom be mentioned, and then only indirectly, and by accident, for this is a family story never told, much less passed down or elaborated on years later.”
The Prudent Mariner will no doubt be compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, as Williams clearly intends. There is the similarity in the names Riddley and Radley (as in Boo), and both stories share, among other things, the fabrication of an illicit sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman, and a scary neighbourhood recluse who turns out to be more decent than the community at large, perhaps by virtue of being marginalized by it.
But Harper Lee’s classic ends with a lie, or at the very least with complicity in sweeping things under the carpet, whereas in The Prudent Mariner true redemption can only happen by acknowledging all that is submerged in our histories. For Riddley, the past is like lagan, a maritime term meaning “goods sunk on purpose so they could eventually be hauled back up”. And hauling the past up to the surface is precisely what this book is about.