Denver novelist Carleen Brice‘s second novel is a quick-paced family drama that turns on a secret adoption, told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of two sisters who are unknown to each other, living in the same city but in very different worlds. Trish Taylor is a blond, overweight veterinary technician who came back to her hometown of Aurora, Colo. after her marriage failed, bringing her biracial teenage son Will with her. Trish was told her mother and infant sister died in a car accident when she was a preschooler, and her stern grandparents raised her. Billie Cousins is the cherished daughter of a successful Denver African-American family. Her mother is a Reynelda Muse-like local television anchor, and her father is the dean of the business school at the University of Colorado. Through a newly discovered letter and a visit to an old neighbor, Trish learns that Billie is the sister she thought died in infancy, and tracks her down, disrupting both their lives.
The plot has many complications. Billie, an earthy type who communes with her ancestors through the aid of herbs and essential oils, suffers from Lupus, an autoimmune disease that she keeps in remission with healthy eating, exercise, acupuncture and meditation. She’s just found out she’s pregnant but knows that her long-time partner—a marginally employed jazz musician—doesn’t want kids. Mall cops single out Trish’s son and accuse him of shoplifting, evidently because he’s biracial, sending him into an adolescent identity tailspin, complicated because he has a white mother. Trish, a junk-food eating homebody who is lonely and yearns for family, wants to make Billie into her instant sister when she discovers her, but Billie is taken aback, not wanting to accept a white person as a relative. Brice keeps the kettle of her plot boiling, adding new ingredients every chapter, and her prose is direct and clear, qualities that make this book go down easy.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Children of the Waters, however, is its accurate depiction of contemporary Denver, with scenes set at the KUVO studio, the Juneteenth Festival, a West African Dance class in the Five Points rec center, and a fundamentalist Christian megachurch in the suburbs. The story Carleen Brice tells is set in the real Denver, not in a generic stand-in for the city or in a make-believe bolo-tie infested Western place.
As I’ve mentioned before, the literature of Denver is oddly scant, and it’s refreshing to see the city portrayed this way, populated by characters who feel like genuine Denver folks. In Children of the Waters, Denver is a city that’s multi-cultural yet stuck in the middle of the somewhat monochromatic West, mountain-oriented yet urban, with the problems of poverty and drugs that go along with that, as well as the culture and privilege to be found in any city of its size: the Cousins family has Club Level Rockies season tickets, and Billie enjoys dining at WaterCourse Foods, a Capitol Hill vegetarian restaurant.
The other remarkable aspect of Children of the Waters is the frank discussions about race that Brice’s characters are able to have because of the intimate situations they are put in. When the mall cops have Will in plastic handcuffs, an older black woman comes up to Trish and advises her to get her son out of there before the cops come; “These guards don’t have any legal right to hold him,” she explains, knowledge surely gained from her own experience. Billie started her dance class in the hope “to motivate some of the black women in the neighborhood to get fit, but there was only one older sister, Jackie, in the class.” Some of the white students annoy Billie. One of them, with “moon white” skin has her DNA analyzed and declares, “I’m fourteen percent African,” to Billie’s great annoyance. Billie and Trish’s conversations about race cover thoughts that many people probably harbor, but few have the opportunity to discuss.
None of this gets too heavy-handed, however, as the plot clips along at a summer reading pace. Children of the Waters would be a great beach read if Denver had any beaches. Call it a Cherry Creek Reservoir or Congress Park Pool read, by a novelist who writes with clarity and insight about contemporary Denver.
Carleen Brice will discuss her new book at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on July 16 at 7:30 p.m.