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Sister Water: Landscapes of Childhood    by Nancy Willard order for
Sister Water
by Nancy Willard
Order:  USA  Can
Wayne State University Press, 2005 (1995)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Nancy Willard was awarded the Newbery Medal for her children's poetry book, A Visit to William Blake's Inn. She has written essays, novels and poetry, for both children and adults, notably Swimming Lessons and Things Invisible to See. Willard is a lecturer in English at Vassar College.

In Sister Water, Willard writes lyrically with style and grace, imagination and wit. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Woolmans form a circle of family through life and love, death and birth, sadness and joy. It begins as Jessie Nelson becomes a student at the University of Michigan, attending a course in Semi-Precious Gems. She visits the Woolman Scientific Supply Company on the Huron River, whose owner, Henry Woolman, created a museum containing a large collection of gems. A unique feature of the museum is that it was built over an underground stream. Henry 'uncovered it and reinforced the banks on both sides with stones and scattered mica chips in the bright path of the water'. Jessie and Henry marry, adding to their family two daughters Ellen and Martha, sons-in-law Mike and John, and grandchildren Stevie, Allison, and her husband Elmer, an attorney.

Henry passes away, and Mike is later killed in an automobile accident. To assist Jessie, who is slightly frail and forgetful, Sam Theopolis is hired as a live-in caregiver. Wealthy, haughty Harvey Mack inquires about the purchase of the Woolman property, to build a new mall (the 'Pawquacha Plaza') - but the Woolman's are not ready to sell. When Ellen gives Harvey a tour of the museum, he sees the face of a dark-haired woman in the stream (no one else does and this isn't Harvey's only glimpse of the woman's face). Harvey courts Ellen, taking her to dine at the 'Buddha Uproar Café'. Among many notable and hysterical exchanges in the story is one between Harvey, Ellen, and the restaurant's owner and waiter, about the type of food on the menu. Jessie is rushed to hospital, her EKG showing: 'Across the screen a tiny shadow like a pilgrim ant had crawled out of the darkness and was crossing, slowly and patiently, the heart's mountains.' Sam, who's been courting Ellen, is arrested for murder, and Elmer defends him.

Nancy Willard's lyricism enfolds the reader. Her gently defined characters rapidly appear from chapter-to-chapter, yet the story softly unfolds with day-to-day events. The novel immerses the reader in emotion and empathy. I identified with the Woolman family, but especially appreciated Willard's beautiful words.

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