Course of the Waterman- by Nancy Taylor Robson, 199 pages, $23.95, River City Publishing, Montgomery, Ala.
Nancy Taylor Robson’s first novel is the story of a young man’s struggle to find his way after the foundations of his identity and his family are shattered. It’s also a paean to Bay watermen and their threatened existence; in her acknowledgements Robson dedicates the book to “those who, despite hardship and discouragement, still follow the water.”
Bailey Kraft is a senior in high school and sole son of renowned waterman
Orrin Kraft, whose forefathers were watermen before him. Bailey had been learning at his father’s side aboard the Leah Jean since he was three, crabbing in summer and oystering in winter, drinking in the secrets of the river and deepening his love for it every single day. He harbors no doubt about who he is or what he wants to do-until the day his father, who has watched their way of life slipping away with dwindling harvests, tells him he’s going to college, not continuing the family tradition. From that point on,
Bailey’s life becomes a protracted struggle with the people whom he loves most. His one unlikely ally becomes his little sister-the only girl in the family-who’s still in elementary school. Suddenly given the chance to learn the Kraft way on the water, she blossoms under Bailey’s tutelage.
Robson is a frequent writer for this magazine, and she’s been published in Southern Living, the Washington Post and Yachting, among others. She’s also the author of Woman in the Wheelhouse, a nonfiction account of her time as a cook and deckhand on the coastal tugboat on which her husband Gary was captain. She grew up on the Bay building boats with her father, and her love of place is evident throughout Course of the Waterman. So is her insight about life on the water, such as this lovely little bit: “Squinting, Bailey scanned the low tree line, keeping his focus just above where an object might have appeared. It was a trick for locating unlit buoys in the dark his father had taught him. ‘You often see something better when you’re not looking directly at it,’ he had told Bailey. Bailey was beginning to understand that it applied to more than buoys.”
Robson has a good ear for dialogue and she uses that to help drive this story forward at a page-turning clip. (I couldn’t put it down and my husband finished it in one sitting.) The story’s quick pace does come at the expense of a more thoroughly, thoughtfully detailed description of Bailey’s world; there’s a bit of an assumption here that the reader knows something about the Bay and its watermen. And the resolution to Bailey’s conflict comes a little too quickly for comfort. But that’s okay. This is a fine story, well told, by a writer who understands the complexities of families and a way of Bay life that’s utterly changed and may well be disappearing.