Black Water Rising by Attica Locke: A review

I read Attica Locke's acclaimed book, Bluebird, Bluebird, in 2017 and promised myself that I would read more. Finally, with Black Water Rising, I'm beginning to fulfill that promise to myself.

This book is actually Locke's first published novel. It came out in 2009 and was nominated for all sorts of awards including the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. The book is set in Locke's hometown of Houston, Texas in 1981. We moved here a few years later and I can attest that her references to places in the city and to the culture and attitudes of the place in the 1980s ring true.

Houston in 1981 was growing fast. Too fast. The city was built on a base of oil and the oil "barons" had virtually free rein in it. It was a city where a lot of people were trying to make a new start in their lives. Among them was Jay Porter.

Porter was an African-American lawyer with a fledgling practice that he ran out of a dingy strip mall. His clients are mostly poor and barely able to pay him, if at all. His most promising case at the moment involves a prostitute who is suing her john.

It's not exactly the legal practice Porter had dreamed of in his college days as a civil rights activist, but now he's married, with a wife almost ready to deliver their first child. He's made his peace for the moment with his dreams of glory and is just trying to get by and support and protect his family.

Porter had been born in an East Texas town called Nigton where he had learned a valuable lesson:
“Keep your head down, speak only when spoken to. A warning drilled into him every day of his life growing up in Nigton, Texas, née Nig Town, née Nigger Town (its true birth name when it sprang up a hundred years ago in the piney woods of East Texas).”
He had abandoned that strategy somewhat as a college student at the University of Houston, where he had been active in the civil rights movement and had rubbed shoulders with people like Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton. But as a lawyer, he had other priorities:
“Practicing law, he would soon find out, is like running any other small business. Most days he’s just trying to make his overhead: insurance and filing fees, Eddie Mae’s meager salary, plus $500 a month to lease the furnished office space on West Gray. He, quite frankly, can’t afford his principles.”
While at the University of Houston, he had also rubbed shoulders and other parts of the body with another UH student named Cynthia Maddox. When Jay was arrested and charged with a felony, it had ruptured their relationship. He was acquitted, but Cynthia had abandoned him. Now she is the mayor of Houston, the first woman to hold that position. (Kathy Whitmire was, in fact, the first woman to be elected to that position and that was in the 1980s.) 

Jay wants to do something special for his wife for her birthday and he settles on a (he hopes) romantic nighttime barge trip on Buffalo Bayou. The plan goes reasonably well until on the way back they hear two gunshots and a woman's scream and then a splash as something large hits the waters of the bayou. They can hear someone struggling in the muck and Bernie, the wife, insists that Jay go into the black waters to help. He can't say no so he strips off and jumps in, finds a woman struggling in the water, and brings her to the barge. She is a White woman who is clearly uneasy as she views the three Black people, including the captain, on the barge, but they get her to shore and again Bernie insists that they take her to the police station. They leave her there on the steps of the station as Jay drives very slowly and carefully away, making sure he obeys all traffic laws.

Meantime, there is tension brewing between the Black Brotherhood of Longshoremen and the White International Longshoremen's Association over whether to strike for equality of pay and treatment. The tension bursts into flame when a teenage member of the Black group is brutally beaten by three White men. Jay's father-in-law, Reverend Boykins, requests his help. He wants him to reach out to the mayor to try to bring peace between the two groups. Jay is reluctant but it is impossible to refuse the man who is the closest thing to a father that he has.

The author skillfully develops these parallel tracks of her plot until we finally are able to see connections. Those connections all lead back to the power structure, the real power structure, of the city.

Attica Locke had me from the first paragraph of this book. She made palpable for me the fear and anxiety that are an integral part of the Black male's (or female's, for that matter) interactions with the police. We know only too well that those interactions in American society are fraught with inequality and, too often, a lack of respect on the part of the police. And too often they end in tragedy.

And how do we reach that Utopia of equality? I give you the Reverend Boykins:
“Rev says, “pretending people aren’t black is not the way to equality. It’s not even possible, first of all. Any more than I can pretend you aren’t who you are.”
Maybe we just have to accept each other as we are, realizing that we all bleed the same color red, and start from there. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. I wonder whether we will all accept each other the way we are? I earnestly hope so. We cannot continue on a path of mutual mistrust and dislike, that inevitably spirals down to the tragedies all too common today.

    1. Unfortunately, there will probably always be some who must have an "other" to hate and feel superior to. Our only hope may be to reduce their number through education and never again to elevate one of them to "lead" our country.

  2. I listened to this novel earlier this year... I found it difficult to get into Black Water Rising due to the narrator, the cheesy music between chapters, and the storyline initially.... I didn't think this book picked up for me until around chapter 11. I ended up liking this novel over all once the storyline picked up, but I only gave Black Water Rising a rating of 3 out of 5 stars. Maybe if I'd read then novel verses listening to it, I would have liked it more.

    1. The narrator on audio books can definitely put you off if he/she is not skillful. And cheesy music? Yes, that would definitely put me off! But I found reading the book a very pleasurable and enlightening experience.

  3. I, like Captivated Reader, started this book way back when and could not get going with it. Now I have read Bluebird, Bluebird and Heaven, My Home, both of which were great. I have seen that she has a way of just throwing the reader into a story and you either sink or swim. Since I have twice managed to keep swimming I plan to go back and read her earlier novels.

    1. I was intrigued by the Houston connection and never found the reading difficult. If you do decide to go back and try this one again, I hope you have better luck the second time around.

  4. I definitely want to give this author a try : Attica Locke ... she seems to be getting some good attention. thanks for your review.

    1. She's very talented. I have no hesitation in recommending her work.


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