Robert Smalls was born enslaved on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. He died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915, as “owner” of the house of his former master, bought with his own money. On the pages of Trouble the Water, a novel by Rebecca Dwight Bruff, is a reenactment of what happened in between.
Taking a carriage tour of Beaufort, Rebecca Dwight Bruff listened as the guide mentioned bits of information about Robert Smalls. “I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard the man’s name – such an American Hero,” she said in an interview with Robyn Zimmerman of North of the Broad. When asked about her writing journey, Rebecca answered, “It really sort of emerged from learning about Robert Smalls. His story is extraordinary, his life and his legacy… the more I got to know the story, the more I wanted to share it… It deserves to be told.”
Trouble the Water navigates the rich tributaries of suffering, hope, courage, and redemption. In his inspiring journey, Robert Smalls is witness to both privilege and suffering alongside his owner’s daughter and the dangerous son of a firebrand secessionist. At the age of twelve, he’s sent to work in Charleston, where he loads ships and learns to pilot a cotton steamer. When the Civil War erupts and the cotton steamer on which he is enslaved becomes a confederate warship, Robert seizes the opportunity to pursue freedom for himself and the people he loves.*
“Before this decisive night, I’d not fully appreciated the subtle line between inspiration and insanity. But now, with all our lives at risk, I found myself navigating the most perilous edge…”*
Many Americans are not aware of the advances and contributions of the formerly enslaved during the brief years of Reconstruction. Beyond escaping to his freedom, Robert Smalls became a Navy captain and a Congressman. Rebecca Dwight Bruff, in a subsequent interview with Holly Bounds Jackson of By the River, expressed her feelings about how her education lacked the history of Robert Smalls. “He’s an American hero, writ large. It angered me. It frustrated me, and the more I learned, the more I realized how much of that happens and has happened throughout history, for centuries. There’s too many lost stories.”
With a background in education and theology, Rebecca Dwight Bruff is an ordained United Methodist minister. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M and a master’s and doctorate at Southern Methodist University.
Trouble the Water was awarded a First Place/Gold prize for Debut Fiction, and First Place/Gold Prize for Adult Fiction by The Feathered Quill Book Awards. Notable book clubs in organizations such as The Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage chose Trouble the Water as their Black History Month selection, and the Pulpwood Queens Book Club selected it in 2020.
Rebecca’s website displays an impressive list of endorsements. As a speaker and facilitator, she is available to classrooms, seminars, and book clubs. Rebecca also volunteers at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort.
Thank you, Rebecca, for this Historic Beaufort postcard that beckons me to visit! When I do, Tabernacle Baptist Church – the burial place of Robert Smalls – will be the first site to see. I’ll also walk along Prince Street to see the Robert Smalls House, a National Historic Landmark. Your move from Dallas to Beaufort because of this man and his story is both fascinating and admired. I’m glad you love your new home. 🙂