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Attica exploded in September of 1971. The prisoners finally tired of politely requesting humane treatment, like more than one roll of toilet paper per month, more than one shower a week and a diet that included less pork (religious dietary observance) and more fresh fruit. Just that year Attica began taking in prisoners who were only 21; before then the minimum age was 25. The prison, designed for 1200 prisoners, housed over 2200. Less than a month after black activist George Jackson was shot by the guards at San Quentin, the prisoners at Attica took hostages and demanded change.

If you were alive in those days, you too, may have memories of the constant coverage of the takeover and standoff. It was what you saw each evening on the news and it filled the pages of the local newspapers across the nation. I remember the flyover film of the prison and then the horrifying black and white photographs of the aftermath. It was hard for me to accept that a freely elected government could so turn on those it was sworn to protect, even though I had already read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, even though I had seen the police in Chicago brutalize innocent bystanders in 1968 and even though I was well aware of the shooting at Kent State a year earlier. The reaction at the Attica uprising still had the power to shock and sicken.

So when I saw the name of this writer, Attica Locke, I couldn't help but wonder, how could someone have named a child after a prison known for a human rights riot?

All I know is I was born three years later, in '74. [My mother] has since said it's a fit for my personality. I guess I'm fiery or righteous, but she felt right away that's what she wanted her child to be named. It's late '60s, early '70s politics. Both my parents were activists in Texas, starting in college at the University of Houston and for a few years after.
Not only fiery or righteous, she is a writer of remarkable talent, lifting the quality of genre fiction to place it a little higher on the literary scale. I love mysteries, but I love even more those novels that ask existential questions. When is history past? Can it ever be past when it seems to cast ripples into today?

In Black Water Rising, Attica Locke tells us the story of an African American lawyer in the Houston of 1981. He is just barely getting by handling petty criminal cases and personal injury lawsuits. We learn that he was once a campus activist at the University of Houston back in the day. Today he finds himself inadvertently in the middle of an attempted murder when he helps fish a white woman out of the bayou that flows through Houston.

He is on the bayou in a barely floating craft that a client described as a "river cruise" for his wife's birthday. He had failed to purchase a birthday gift for his wife Bernie, who was six months pregnant, and gladly accepted this river boat cruise as payment for a small probate case that he had handled. As they are cruising through Houston, they hear screams for help, gunshots and the splash of a body entering the water nearby. Jay Porter jumps in and drags the stranger into the craft. Prompted by his wife to take the woman to the police, and report the crime, Porter hesitates.

And that hesitation sets the stage for the danger that continues to increase as he and his wife are drawn into a crime that has political as well as financial dimensions. As we travel along, we learn about Jay's past as a student activist during the 60s and 70s, and his buried relationship with the woman who is now Houston's mayor. And we learn about the FBI case that took Jay off the track of the American Dream and has left him struggling with a law practice located in a dingy strip mall.

Locke, a Houston native, has done an outstanding job of bringing the Houston of 1981 to life, complete with the traffic, noise, humidity, and strained relations between the races. Her attention to the period detail is impeccable as we hear the background music of Otis Redding and the ringing of a rotary dial telephone. My husband and I spent a few nights in the Houston area in 1982, and my memory is of a city that had outgrown its freeways and had a petroleum odor that hung in the air with a fog-like humidity. It was noisy and crowded and vibrant as only a growing city can be.

Her characters, especially Jay Porter, are fully developed. They are complex with real emotions and rich histories that reveal what they have become and suggest what they might be capable of in the future.

Jay stands beneath his city, staring at the raggedy boat, feeling a knot tighten in his throat, a familiar cinch at the neck, a feeling of always coming up short where his wife is concerned. He feels a sharp stab of anger. The guy on the phone lied to him. The guy on the phone is a liar. It feels good to outsource it, to put it on somebody else. When the truth is, there are thirty-five open case files on his desk, at least ten or twelve with court time pending; there wasn’t time to plan anything else for Bernie’s birthday, and more important, there hasn’t been any money, not for months. He’s waiting on a couple of slip-and-falls to pay big, but until then there’s nothing coming in. When one of his clients, a guy who owes him money for some small-time probate work, said he had a brother or an uncle or somebody who runs boat tours up and down the bayou, Jay jumped at the chance. He got the whole thing comped. Just like the dinette set he and Bernie eat off of every night. Just like his wife’s car, which has been on cement blocks in Petey’s Garage since April. Jay shakes his head in disgust. Here he is, a workingman with a degree, two, in fact, and, still he’s taking handouts, living secondhand. He feels the anger again, and beneath it, its ugly cousin, shame.

He tucks the feelings away.

Anger, he knows, is a young man’s game, something he long ago outgrew.

The plot wasn't quite as strong as the sense of place and character, it almost seemed like she had too many balls in the air at the same time. By the end of the book, however, she managed to neatly tie all of the plot strings into a solution.

There were times in the novel when I wanted to scream at Jay to just call the police. But that only reflected my life experience as a middle class white woman and forced me to once again acknowledge the very different lives we led then and now. Jay had good reason not to call the police for the help that I automatically assumed would be forthcoming. It still catches me unaware that this white privilege means that although I share the same time and place, my experience of them is different from that of my African American step-mother and great-grandsons. I like novels that do that and in so doing remind me that truth is often found in a turn of the kaleidoscope that changes our perceptions.

Black Water Rising was nominated for the 2010 Edgar Award and the NAACP Image Award as well as the short list for the 2010 Orange Prize, and a finalist for the 2009 LA Times Book Award. I found it engaging enough that I wanted to read more. Fortunately, she has written another and next week I will bring you more about the writer herself and her latest book, The Cutting Season.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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