Named An Amazon Best Book of January 2023, Nyani Nkrumah’s Wade in the Water is a fascinating debut novel set in 1980s Mississippi that explores simmering racial tensions and the fraught history of segregation in this small town. The novel was recently published on January 17 by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The publisher’s note describes Wade in the Water as a a “gripping debut novel of female power and vulnerability, race, and class that explores the unlikely friendship between a precocious black girl and a mysterious white woman in a small Mississippi town in the early 1980s.” The story is told through the voices of the two main characters, the young Black girl Ella and the white Princeton University professor Ms. St. James.
Read the full synopsis below:
Set in 1982, in rural, racially divided Ricksville, Mississippi Wade in the Water tells the story of Ella, a black, unloved, precocious eleven-year-old, and Ms. St. James, a mysterious white woman from Princeton who appears in Ella’s community to carry out some research. Soon, Ms. St. James befriends Ella, who is willing to risk everything to keep her new friend in a town that does not want her there. The relationship between Ella and Ms. St. James, at times loving and funny and other times tense and cautious, becomes more fraught and complex as Ella unwittingly pushes at Ms. St. James’s carefully constructed boundaries that guard a complicated past, and dangerous secrets that could have devastating consequences.
The friendship between the unlikely pair is further complicated by the racial history of the small town and Ms. St. James’ own past. According to the book description, “though it’s been almost 20 years since the killings of three voting-rights activists nearby, the case remains unsolved and racial tensions still run high.” Furthermore, Ms. St. James appears have her own dark secrets in connection to the violence that took place in 1960s Mississippi.
We won’t say more, but the professor’s friendship with Ella may not have the best intentions. Read Nkrumah’s stunning debut novel to find out more about this original and complex portrayal of racial relations in rural America.
In an interview with Ebony Magazine, Nkrumah said she was motivated to write about the intricacies of race and class using the lens of African American history. She grew up in Ghana and Zimbabwe and attended college in the U.S., which is when she realized the Black Studies curriculum was severely lacking. Nkrumah wanted to tell a Civil Rights story and hoped to highlight the complex racial relations within this history:
People can coalesce around this book and discuss what are the roots of racism and colorism and build bridges between communities. I hope readers are drawn to the white and the Black characters, to understand how they think and how that motivates their behavior which influences the actions they take in the story. I’d really like for that to be discussed and debated.
Nyani Nkrumah was born in Boston, raised in Ghana and Zimbabwe, and currently resides in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Amherst College with a dual major in Biology and Black Studies, Nkrumah received her master’s degree at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Cornell University.
If you enjoy novels that explore racial relations in the U.S. context like Chinelo Okparanta’s Harry Sylvester Byrd, then we definitely recommend you add Nkrumah’s debut novel Wade in the Water to your reading list!
Buy Wade in the Water: Amazon (US) | HarperCollins | Amazon (UK)