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Under Water, by J.L. Powers.

October 31, 2018

Under Water
Under Water, by J.L. Powers.  Cinco Puntos Press, January 2019.


4 stars

A young adult novel about a teenage woman in rural South Africa, who seeks to balance her calling by “the ancestors” with the survival of herself and her young sister in a violent, contemporary world.

J.L. Powers grew up in the American West along the American border with her geologist father and journalist mother.  She earned Master’s degrees in African History from the University of New York-Albany and from Stanford and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Texas, El Paso.  A Fulbright-Hayes grant allowed her to study Zulu in South Africa. She has published three powerful Young Adult novels, a picture book, and an anthology of stories about coming of age in a war zone.  She has taught college classes in Creative Writing and African History. She also works in publishing and blogs about Social Justice and Children’s Literature.  Her home page is labeled as “Stories from Around the World.”  She lives in northern California with her family and still thinks of El Paso as her home.

Power’s passion for social justice and complexities that children and young adults face today are evident in all her publications including her new book, Under Water.  In this book, she tells the story of Toshi, a seventeen-year-old, Zulu girl living in urban South Africa.  Toshi did not choose the traditional role of healer and communicator with the ancestors. Instead the ancestors chose her and she believes she must obey, even when their demands are not rational.  With the recent death her grandmother, she must find a means of survival for herself and her young sister.  Everything seems to conspire against her as she tries to cope with angry relatives and neighbors and her long-time boyfriend involves her in violent taxi wars. Toshi must juggle her own traditional commitments while remaining open to radical change.  She learns that she must trust the ancestors even when their demands are irrational.  The open ending of the book offers hope for Toshi and all of us.

Written primarily for young adults, Under Water has a straightforward plot, but not a simplistic one.  The book is enjoyable and informative for readers of all ages.  In fact, the idea that Toshi must learn “to understand evil” seems too sophisticated for the overall style of the book.  While not a Zulu herself, Power has immersed herself in Zulu life and thanks those who have helped her write about a culture not her own.

I am glad to recommend this book, especially but not exclusively, for young adult readers.  I applaud Power’s efforts to build global citizenship with books like this and look forward to seeing more of her writing.  I also applaud Cinco Puntos Press for publishing her books and for doing all they can to create a more compassionate and responsible world.

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