Those who think historical fiction is a waste of time better just move on. Those who think that historical characters and events can’t be rendered through the literary lens of powerful fiction should just stick with history texts.
Bruce Murkoff’s debut, like Patrick Thomas Casey’s Our Burden’s Light is impossible. Impossible in scope, impossible in ambition. It takes a writer with impossible confidence and improbable stubbornness to pull off work of this quality on an inaugural novel.
Waterborne tells the tale of the building of the Hoover Dam. The first image the reader gets is the Colorado river, wild and unfettered, from the beginning of time when the ‘water was squeezed from the rock’ to seeing the wild river from roaming bands of Indians and then Spanish Conquistadores. The river never stops. Murkoff uses the bending, meandering river metaphor to great effect throughout the novel as the reader is introduced to three disparate characters who, on paths set by fate alone, make their way to Nevada to help and bear witness to the colossal undertaking.
Filius Poe is the stoic, emotional center of the story. After suffering innumerable tragedies, he walks along the ‘blurred edges of his quiet life’, taking him and his finely honed engineering skills to tame the Colorado River. Lena is a strong headed woman from Hugo, Oklahoma, seeking a better life for her and her son, she ditches everything she has known to find work among the businesses catering to dam workers. And then there’s Lew Beck nee Louis Beckman. A Jewish runt whose hatred for being bullied pushes him into a life of fierce, sadistic violence.
Poe and Lena, while not necessarily literary archetypes, remain the type of characters that litter historical fiction. A wayward but headstrong woman whose callous heart isn’t easily won. And Poe. The strong center in a narrative brimming with wild activity at the edges. Even Beck, a wild, devilish character; the ‘bad man’ to every John Wayne protagonist, isn’t wholly inventive. But these are strong characters built out of powerful technique. Each character, however superfluous is brought alive by vivid descriptions among a vivid landscape. When you read that a character’s features are ‘bland as rising dough’ coupled with a sturdy character background, every character seems essential, even if their presence is not. Murkoff’s writing is truly magnanimous. It’s big and bursting, the vastness of his dust ridden countryside pales in comparison to the scope and depth of Murkoff’s abilities.