She Writes Press. 280 pages. Trade paperback $16,95.
This tantalizing and sometimes frightening coming-of-age story centers on a strong-minded girl of sixteen, Nettie, and her battles with faith, sexuality, and a near-apocalyptic storm. Set in mountainous Central Virginia in 1969, the novel vividly captures the time and place with authority and respectful understanding. An intriguing extra ingredient is the influence of a native Monacan Indian leader, the grandmother of Nettie’s friend Win, who is an important force in the cultural and spiritual life of her community. This woman, Nibi, can read changes in the weather and restore health through the use of natural medicines. She is in tune with her environment, both a healer and a seer.
Nettie had been friends with Andy since they were in grade school, and now, in their teens, the relationship is maturing in a troublesome way. It’s not clear if they are ready for deep commitments to one another. Nettie is perplexed about “forever love.” She needs to explore what that means much further. How can she – or Andy – know what forever will bring?
Andy is hurt by Nettie’s inability to speak the familiar words of commitment without knowing herself better. He withdraws to give her the room she needs, but before long she finds him too often in the presence of Anne, who has been Nettie’s nemesis since they were young kids. Nettie cannot fathom what Andy sees in Anne, but it’s clear that Anne wants to lord it over the girl she sees as her rival.
For adult readers, such conflicts and uncertainties are long familiar. However, Ms. Webber probes these matters with sensitivity and nuance. Young Adult readers at the threshold Nettie is reaching (high school graduation and the unfathomable “then what?”) are likely to find Webber’s treatment of this theme particularly engaging and useful.
Commitment is a problem for Nettie in other ways as well. It is time for her to be baptized, but the priest at her church is dismayed by Nettie’s unwillingness to accept and voice traditional religious formulas. She is an independent thinker who wants to make her own decisions, not merely mouth platitudes that she hasn’t tested and explored for herself. When the priest observes that Nettie is not yet ready, Nettie is in agreement. However, she and Pastor Williams don’t mean the same thing. He means subservient, she means convinced.
As with her feelings for Andy, this young woman does not want to testify to feelings and beliefs that she isn’t sure are true to her sense of herself.
Pastor Williams sets up an intermediary, an associate pastor named Danes, to guide Nettie in the right direction. While Mr. Danes is a smooth operator and helpful in some ways, he turns out to be a sexual predator. Pastor Williams has put Nettie in harm’s way. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here: Moon Water