Trouble the Water
Charleston, South Carolina, is a colorful place in 1845: a bustling harbor, beautiful flowers and orchards, young women in bright dresses. What strikes teenager Abigail Milton, however, newly arrived from the small town of Wigan, outside Manchester, England, is that slavery is still legal in the United States, and that casts a pall over her impressions of her new life. That, and her host Douglas Elling, her father’s best friend from childhood, is a grumpy, unwelcoming man. Abigail’s parents sent her to Charleston in the hopes that the wealthy Elling would provide her a better life than they can, as they struggle with debt and poor health. Abigail does blossom under the tutelage of governess Larissa, though she also rails against the airs and facades expected of young women. She also discovers the truth behind Elling’s behavior, brought about by the devastating deaths of his wife and daughter three years earlier.
Friedlander’s debut novel tackles some big issues, from slavery and abolition to a young woman’s sexual trauma. These are worthy themes, but Friedlander tends to tell, rather than show, what her characters are thinking and feeling, making for abrupt shifts in tone and mood as well as less-than-believable actions. Secondary characters, especially, are not drawn with any subtlety, and most come across as unlikable caricatures, with no redeeming qualities, meant to represent entire social classes. In marked contrast is the subplot of a runaway slave, in which the secretive and quiet assistance along the road to freedom is portrayed with far more depth in fewer words. Readers will get a mixed picture of the time and the people in Charleston and Wigan, with occasional beautifully rendered moments.