BOOK REVIEW: Dark Water by Laura McNeal

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
It is autumn in Fallbrook, and love blossoms as the mustard weed withers in the sere September of Laura McNeal’s novel Dark Water, a coming of age story set in Southern California’s fire season.

Pearl Dewitt, 15, a doleful child of recent divorce, lives in the guesthouse on her uncle’s avocado ranch with her equally doleful mother, Sharon.

Amiel de la Cruz Guerrero, 17, a migrant farm worker, lives alone under the live oaks and works for Pearl’s Uncle Hoyt.

Pearl is intrigued by the silent boy and his evocative miming. He signs her name “by opening the oyster shell of his two hands and extracting a small invisible pearl, his long expressive fingers turning into a nest and then a bird, undulating so that you forgot his hand was a hand at all.” She is more than intrigued; she is smitten.

Pearl pursues Amiel across their cultural divide and despite his gentle, hesitant refusals. But the bond is made, and inevitably the two unite to follow a path lined with love and dangers, as Fallbrook’s brittle landscape becomes fuel for a deadly wildfire.

In Pearl and Amiel’s story, McNeal describes a society dependent on migrant workers it loathes: “The people who have nothing aren’t allowed to touch the people with cars and houses. They can work here. That’s all.”

She bares the wounds divorce can wreak on spouses and children: Pearl’s father asked her if she was ready for a surprise, and she thought, “A surprise could be dinner at which he would introduce me to the woman or man who must have been eating with him for all those months at La Vache and the French Laundry while he was so-called missing us.”

McNeal explores the aching loneliness of adolescence: “Now that he’s gone, I try to see things when I’m alone. I put one hand over my blue eye, and I look south. With my brown eye I can see all the way to Mexico. I fly over freeways and tile roofs and malls and swimming pools. I cross the Sierra de Juarez Mountains and the Sea of Cortez to the place where Amiel was born, and I find the turquoise house with the red door. There are three chairs on the covered patio: one for him, one for me, and one for Uncle Hoyt. I tell myself the chairs are empty because we’re not there yet. I watch for as long as I can and when my eye starts to water, I remove my hand. Tomorrow, I’ll look again.”

She reveals the powerful and fragile ties that hold family members together and that break, releasing them to scatter in the winds of guilt, deceit and disappointment. And all this McNeal does with the lyrical, sensitive voice of an author who seems to truly love her characters, who cares deeply about the realities they represent, ultimately giving them the gift of hope, of possible resolution. Indeed, despite hints of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet, McNeal allows Pearl — Perla, to Amiel — the hope of proving the stars wrong, the hope of forgiveness. She also allows the two of them to be real — to be foolish, to be wise, to touch the reader simply and deeply.

There is a profound sadness that pervades Dark Water like the wildfire’s smoke that embraces Fallbrook’s hills and creek beds. As secrets are revealed and misunderstandings clarified, the sadness lingers, as the scent of smoke clings to hair and clothing and furnishings.

Dark Water is a gorgeous, graceful story of love and loss, of pathos and sweet innocence. Although the book honors the adolescent protagonist, the length and the themes of young adult fiction — and it was honored as a National Book Award Young People’s Literature finalist — Dark Water is a beautiful example of a crossover novel, one that appeals to both teenagers and adults. The novel warrants a readership as expansive as its compassion.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Binding: Hardcover and e-book Author’s website:

Crossposted at the North County Times.