Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell is what I call an epic novel because of the high amount of time covered, the thorough examination and description of all characters, graphic depictions of settings, and a large number of subplots. Listening to the audiobook was like binge-watching Dallas, or, for a younger audience, binge-watching Lost, or, for my latest favorite, binge-watching all seasons of Banshee. I didn’t read the book and decided to listen to it for some I reason I quickly forgot. It was addictive, and I listened to the audiobook always while waiting for doctors to show up for appointments. It may say something for the efficiency of meetings and referrals that I was able to complete the 97 chapters over 30 hours and ten minutes with several appointments to spare. Because it is an audiobook, I may have misspelled some character and place names.
I was impressed enough with the story to look up some background material. Stephen King praised Michael McDowell as “the finest writer of paperback originals in America today.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_E._Winter. McDowell published many works and several collaborative efforts under four pen names. One shared story and screenplay familiar to many is Beetlejuice. Blackwater was initially published in six books, then in two collections of three books each. I listened to the Omnibus collection issued in 2017 by Valancourt books.
Elinor Dammert appeared mysteriously in the town of Perdido, Alabama in 1919 and was immediately interested in marrying Oscar Caskey. Successful in her objective, the story turns into a history of the Caskey family. Although Elinor entered the story in 1919, she had to deal with the Caskey matriarch, Mary Love, whose story begins in the late 18th century. Elinor will have to manage and redirect cultural influences from the “Victorian era.” Elinor will have help from other-worldly creatures and will occasionally use some other-worldly powers of her own to exact revenge or influence others to do her will. Elinor is not of this world and hides dark secrets which will evolve into the basis for Perdido legends and beliefs.
SETTINGS: Michael McDowell describes natural settings, changing economic conditions, and cultural changes over time stretching from 1919 to the late 1960s with language that changes as time progresses. Perdido, Alabama is a small town in 1919 subject to frequent flooding. Elinor makes her appearance as a person stranded in a hotel by receding floodwaters. She needs rescue, or maybe not. Elinor may have placed herself in a flooded top story hotel room to introduce herself to Perdido. The author presents this mystery early (thus not a spoiler). McDowell uses evocative imagery to describe the town that is in despair and resigned to poverty due to periodic, predictable flooding. Beautiful scenic contrasts describe the Alabama countryside as it changes with the construction of a levee which brings economic improvement and a better life for some segments of the population.
A controversial setting describes changing racial relations over almost 100 years. The most contentious passages occur in the 1960s. In several passages of dialogue, Oscar Caskey will speak to a long-time family cook and household helper. When Oscar reminds her that she will soon be guaranteed voting rights and that she might even be elected as the first Black female mayor of Perdido, the devoted household help replies that her life is devoted to service of her betters and that she is proud to do so. While she might be expressing a personal view, I am sure “offended flags” will go up despite the year this collection was written. Not surprisingly, period language such as Blacks, Negroes, and Colored Population are used. I did not find any instances of the “n” word.
I liked the way gender issues were discussed. There are instances of homosexuality and lesbian relationships. Examples are not overplayed and introduced in an almost “oh, by the way” attitude. Perdido seems to not fit into the stereotype of an Alabama small town. The population takes notice and then gets on with daily business.
A sweeping historical setting describes poverty from flood damage, increasing wealth for the Caskey family as it leaves people of all color in Perdido behind, and the effects of the 1929 Depression on the Caskey family and everyone else. Then comes the increasing wealth as war production spurs the economy, women replace men in factories as they support the war while finding they are valuable members of society, and the adjustments that come at the end of WWII. The author describes the turbulent 60s factually without a strident politicized voice.
CHARACTERS: I could not and did not want to count the number of characters in this novel. I expected it to become burdensome because I listened to the audiobook; I could not go back and check who was related to whom. It didn’t matter. All characters are clearly defined; there is no blurring together of even minor roles. It was easy to follow even though tracing the progeny of Mary Love through children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren produced lots of characters. Some of those descendants married (more characters) and unions resulted in more children and grandchildren. The Caskey family at different points in the story occupied three adjacent mansions. Because of petty and significant family feuds, there were times of no communication between some homes. Family alliances shifted. In a rather remarkable theme running through the story, children were traded between the families to such a point that some of the exchanges were admittedly nothing more than trades for profit or favors. The transfers were not temporary. Lasting for life, the results of these transfers form the basis for many subplots. I was amazed that McDowell’s writing style left me with a clear image of all characters, no confusion.
Mary Love is the Caskey family matriarch. She likes no one, is feared by everyone, and has managed to amass and not share the considerable wealth in many forms so that she is considered very wealthy by standards of the 1920s. She doesn’t believe in buying land, which is the basis for the timber wealth feeding the mills that led to her riches. Her sons disagree with her but for Mary disagreement is the spice of life. She attempts to block her sons in all things as she busily counts money. One son, Oscar, was in a riverboat that rescued the mysterious Elinor, a lady who will purposefully seduce and marry Oscar against the will of Mary Love. Mary Love and Elinor will be sworn enemies, more severe than just enemies, and they will fight each other fiercely through subterfuges, misdirection, and clever plots. Mary Love has the advantage of family fear, but Elinor has the power of help from the dark side.
Elinor drives this story for most of the six books in the saga. The first few books have subplots centered on the conflict between Elinor and Mary Love with Mary Love having a distinct disadvantage; she is old. That she will die is a given and not a spoiler. The manner of her death will interest readers. Elinor will have two daughters, Miriam and Frances. Elinor considers Miriam a bargaining chip and gives Miriam over to the care of Sister, an unmarried daughter of Mary Love who lives in one mansion with her mother. In return, Elinor will finally take possession of a neighboring estate grudgingly built by Mary Love for her son Oscar as a wedding present for Oscar and Elinor. Elinor, who may be described as a person with dark superpowers, uses her skills sparingly and is quite adept at manipulation in the human world without resort to her abilities. Elinor has a second daughter, Frances, who may have inherited dark powers from her mother. Elinor loves her second daughter, who will grow to get married and have two daughters. Frances will also like one of her daughters but will give one away. Dark powers are not the only thing Frances may have inherited.
There are no strong male characters in this story. James, the oldest son of Mary Love, runs the mill, makes a lot of money and spins his wheels all his life trying to buy land against the will of Mary Love. Oscar, son of James and husband of Elinor, will eventually be succeeded in his role of running the company by Miriam, the daughter he and Elinor gave away. Miriam will ultimately marry a man who had to promise in advance that he would always do as she wanted. He was nothing more than a handyman. Billy, the most potent male character, is only active in the field of accounting. He counts money, that is it.
The most robust character is the Perdido River. Readers cannot avoid keeping this in mind as the story develops.
Above all, this is a story of the Caskey family. They become unbelievably wealthy despite family conflicts and the discovery of oil on land Mary Love had opposed, but Elinor had insisted valuable. Elinor sensed the land had oil, and she was right. Everybody in the family shared in the unbelievable riches that could not be spent even if their lives were dedicated to spending. Things could not be more perfect.
In book Six, we see the Caskey family decline. The change is not due to some malevolent force; it is due to changing American culture. The Caskey family, isolated by wealth, doesn’t pay attention. If they did, except for Miriam, they wouldn’t care. This decline is a satisfying trend and an indication of a possible conclusion. Readers will want to stick around to see what happens with Elinor. After all, dark and supernatural powers never die.
This epic novel is a five-star Amazon read that takes a lot of time to read or listen to. Epic stories do that. I listened to this as part of my Scribd subscription, so this review will not be posted on Amazon.