“Trouble the Water” by Rebecca Dwight Bruff is a finely crafted historical fiction novel inspired by the extraordinary life of a young man born into slavery in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
This debut novel, published in 2019, explores the years prior to the Civil War, through the war years and Reconstructive Era.
Robert Smalls was born on a plantation on Lady’s Island to Lydia Polite, a house slave; until his later years, he did not know who his father was. His last name was given to him by a fellow slave, commenting on his size.
Robert’s mother called him “Trouble” because he was born on the night of great “trouble” in town, when a young slave named Ruben, a dreamer who believed in a better future, was hanged for leaving the plantation.
Young Robert grew up as the son of a house slave for the kind McKee family. He later worked as a field slave at a nearby plantation, eventually working the docks of Beaufort. Much of his time as a boy was spent on the Lowcountry rivers, creeks and marshes with Mr. McKee. He became a skilled boatman, knowledgeable about fishing, navigating and operating boats – and on the water was where he longed to be.
In his various jobs for Mr. McKee, Robert observed the people and events around him, learning the ways of successful people. He knew the strict rules for slaves and (mostly) followed them in order to survive, but felt strongly about the practice of owning a human being and how people of color were treated. These thoughts burned steadily and intensified into a resolute determination to be free and make a better life for himself, his family and all people of color.
As Robert worked and eventually married, he continued to look for ways to break away from life as a slave, owned by a master. His skill as a boatman and his determination to create a better life gave rise to an idea that ultimately resulted in an extraordinary act of courage and tenacity.
Don’t worry. There are no spoilers in this review. Get this book and read it. Not only is it an engrossing story, but a solid investment in understanding history and Robert Smalls’ personal contribution to the fight for freedom. His resolve and passion were extraordinary and endured throughout his life.
Stories about Smalls are not well known outside the Lowcountry. After the author first heard about him, she moved cross-country to research the history and write this book with the hope of changing that.
This book is an apt example of that old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” as surely one could not conjure up a story like this.
Bruff has written a book that is action-filled and truly inspirational. Already an American Fiction Award winner, “Trouble the Water” is garnering five-star reviews and praise from established authors, with Cassandra Conroy King calling Rebecca Bruff “…an exciting new voice in historical fiction.”
The author is available for speaking engagements at book clubs, community groups, libraries and schools. She can be contacted via her website at rebeccabruff.com or email her at becbruff@gmailcom.
Glenda Harris is a freelance writer and editor, nature lover and aspiring novelist.