cover image Sister Water

Sister Water

Nancy Willard. Alfred A. Knopf, $21 (255pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40702-7

Essayist ( Angel in the Parlor ), children's author ( A Visit to William Blake's Inn ) and novelist ( Things Invisible to See ) Willard's gift for seamlessly mixing the magical and the mundane puts her in the company of Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman. But perhaps it is her poet's eye ( Water Walker ) that infuses her work with intense lyricism and the power to wring the reader's heart with a phrase or an image. Here she fashions a moving story about a family in crisis and the power of love to transcend reality and ``open a doorway into the spirit world.'' At age 15, Jessie Nelson had a vision of the angel of death during a tornado in Drowning Bear, Wis. The widowed Jessie, now in her 70s, and her two married daughters and two grandchildren live in Ann Arbor, where the family owns a museum that harbors a meandering stream and historical artifacts of the region bounded by rivers. Jessie's growing senility forces her daughters (one of whom loses her husband as the narrative begins) to hire mystic Sam Theopolis as their mother's live-in caretaker. Sam's benign, healing presence is balanced by the brooding attentions of unscrupulous developer Harvey Mack, who wants to buy the museum and erect a shopping mall on land where the river tribe of Pawquacha Indians (``water is their occupation'') lived and died. In Willard's gently whimsical plot, two modern-day Pawquachas (and their animal counterparts, a toad and a turtle) play parts in rescuing Sam from peril and allowing love to flourish. Willard's intimacy with magic as well as her acutely observant eye for domestic routine blend to create an enchanting story. (May)