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LIVING WATER
Obery Hendricks
HarperSanFrancisco
Historical Fiction
ISBN: 0060000880

This is a gripping, at times lusty, tale based on the life story of the Samaritan Woman. LIVING WATER is not a stereotypically lightweight, biblical novel. It's for readers who are ready for a challenge and willing to look for truths presented in nontraditional forms.

Author Obery Hendricks, a seminary "professor of biblical interpretation," calls this, his first novel, "an African American retelling of the New Testament story of the woman at the well who was married to five successive husbands at a time when women did not have the right to choose either marriage or divorce." Ethnic overtones are evident in some characters' nicknames (Sonny Boy and Big Mama) and patterns of dialogue ("Oh Lordy, we're in trouble now" and "Don't he talk sweet"). But there are deeper parallels: The ravages of slavery and harsh control influence the heart of the story --- the Samaritan men being humiliated and beaten down by the Romans; the women being powerless property of the husbands who have lost respect for themselves and take out their frustration on their women.

The book opens with a short, startling death scene of the Samaritan woman's fifth husband. Then Part 1 is a flashback, from prenuptial childhood up to that pivotal, bloody mess. She --- her name is Maryam, though significantly we aren't told this for 250 pages --- is a spunky, in-your-face kind of kid who sadly learns, from her kindhearted grandmother, Ma Tee, that spunk is not acceptable for girls. "Atop the coarse woolen tunic that is [the girl's] usual attire is now draped a stale, heavy garment of carefulness. Ma Tee has tried her best to craft it to her size, yet it does not fit. Still, she will dutifully struggle to wear it, though its weight will sag her heart to its knees." And this narrative comment comes even before she's married to and beaten down by her first husband and abandoned by numbers two, three, and four.

This is a feminist story, but not drastically so; it is egalitarian more than man bashing. The big cast of characters --- five (or is it six?) husbands, three father figures, a brother-in-law, Messiah Jesus, and more --- include bad men and good; similarly with the Samaritan women. In a supplemental reader's guide, Hendricks explains that the Samaritan woman's journey "to be free of male domination and mistreatment was also my own journey to free myself from the roles of dominator and mistreater."

Theologically conservative readers may rankle at some feminist theology, but, again, this is not as radical as it might be. Hendricks interprets biblical passages (mostly from Proverbs, once from Luke) that personify Wisdom (a feminine Hebrew word) as being descriptive of "the woman-side of God."

For a novel that is replete with social commentary applicable to any age --- including a chapter on an itinerant, fraudulent faith healer --- LIVING WATER is an engaging read. Part 2 --- in which Maryam claims her name, takes up with a man who loves her and treats her well, and becomes a disciple of Jesus --- includes powerful scenes of redemption, even unto the last page, which drew a tear to my eye.

   --- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence

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