Following the death of her beloved grandmother, an orphaned Native American girl, Rachel Winnapee, is taken in to care at a local convent. Two years later, just after the end of World War II, sixteen-year-old Rachel goes to work for the wealthy March family as a maid in their summer residence in Beck’s Point on Lake Michigan.
Rachel keeps her head down and gets on with her many chores, until she is called upon to take care of the family’s son Woody, who has recently returned from the war a shadow of his former self. Although Woody had agreed to marry his long-term girlfriend Elizabeth, he starts to reject both her and his old friends and lifestyle and, as Rachel nurses the family’s sole surviving heir back to health, they form a friendship which goes beyond the duties entrusted to Rachel as she helps him to conceal secrets that would bring shame upon the March family if they were ever discovered.
In the absence of her workaholic husband, the house is ruled by the domineering Mrs. March, a devout Catholic who tries to steer Woody’s affections back towards Elizabeth and prepare him for his responsibilities once he takes over the family’s banking business.
When Woody’s father is taken ill, the family cut short their summer break and rush back to St.Louis, leaving no time for goodbyes. In the years that follow, Rachel writes to Woody but never receives any replies. It is not until she returns to Beck’s Point many years later with a secret of her own that she discovers what has happened to the only man with whom she’s ever been in love.
The Water Dancers follows Rachel’s story from her days as an innocent, impoverished teenager to an independent mature woman caught between two very different worlds. In this tale about love, loss, identity, passion, cultural difference, family and tribe, Terry Gamble resists the temptation to make the central love story over-sentimental. Instead she treats it with sensitivity, a realistic portrayal of forbidden love in which all-consuming passion must at times be suppressed.
With a wealth of interesting multi-faceted secondary characters, Rachel’s journey takes her to many places and even those characters who appear to be opposed to her are written in such a way as to remain sympathetic with clear personal motives. Gamble juxtaposes the situations of two families from very different cultural and economic backgrounds while highlighting that the familial expectations, obligations and the sacrifices individuals are forced to make are universal. The book explores the complexities and contradictions faced by individuals of mixed-race as they strive to incorporate or reject traditional practices and beliefs in their endeavours to establish an identity of their own. Memory and identity are intrinsically linked as characters revisit old places to rediscover their roots and accept their cultural heritage as well as a place from which to escape.
Gamble takes great care to illustrate details of culturally specific practices and skills creating rich imagery against the backdrop of the natural landscape. Natural elements are presented as possessing spiritual qualities capable of bridging gaps between class and race. The recurring motifs of earth and water are used to great effect as symbols of freedom, rebirth and transition and it is in and around the lake that many of the novel’s most touching and evocative scenes occur. Her lyrical prose enriches the spiritual aspects while enhancing the steady pacing of the narrative in an enjoyable novel centered on an engaging protagonist.