REVIEW: “Women of White Water” by Helen Kenwright

Review of Helen Kenwright, “Women of White Water”, in Glass and Gardens: Solar Punk Summers, edited by Sarena Ulibarri, (World Weaver Press, 2018): 235-249 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story ticks one of my buttons right from the start: Berta, the heroine, is in her fifties and “she knew a great many things. It was her job, after all” (p. 235). I am constantly looking for stories that give me models for how to be the heroine in my own future life, and Berta from the start shapes up to be a good one. But this is speculative fiction, not autobiography, and what Berta knows is something more than books and facts; her knowledge comes from her gifts, gifts that other people fear.

Kenwright’s story explores head-on a dimension of mind-reading which is often addressed only sideways and slantways: The notion of consent. When you Know everyone’s inner secrets, how do you navigate your life so as to intrude as little as possible? Berta has created a set of rules that she follows, that dictate when she allows herself to act upon the information she has gleaned without permission, and this is part of the craft that she tries to teach her apprentice, Andrea: The difference between knowledge and wisdom.

With that as the focus of the story, everything else fades into the background. It is not clear how Berta and Andrea are able to know things the way they do, whether this is innate or learned; the specifics of place and time are left vague; we are introduced to a whole panoply of people with no more than a name and a detail or two; even the story itself is told in a series of short scenes, which the reader must stitch together herself. In some stories, this might feel irritatingly lacking; in this story, however, I thought it provided an excellent framework for exploring these questions.