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Julie Cantrell

New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

A must-read, Trouble the Water is a beautifully-crafted novel inspired by the powerful life of Robert Smalls, a brave American hero who was born into slavery and left us all a tale worth telling. Debut author, Rebecca Bruff, has made her mark with this exceptional examination of family, freedom, and what it really means to fight for the light.


Jeffrey Blount

Author of three novels,  Almost Snow White, winner of the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and Hating Heidi Foster, winner of the 2013 Readers Favorite Book Award for young adult literature, and multi-award winning

The Emancipation of Evan Walls. 

In her brilliant new novel, Trouble the Water, Rebecca Dwight Bruff skillfully uncovers an American odyssey, long lost in the camouflage of history.  It is the unlikely journey of Robert Smalls, born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina.  While suffering the heartache and horrid indignities of chattel slavery, Smalls dreams of freedom for himself and his family.  In what has to be one of the most daring and nail-biting  escapes ever attempted in the low country, Smalls succeeds in changing the lives of many while becoming a Civil War hero and a paragon of civic leadership.  Bruff gifts her readers a stunningly dramatic narrative. Gripping, heartrending and at last, inspirational.  A testimony to hope through the darkest of times and a testimony to the triumph of the human spirit, not soon to be forgotten. Kudos to Rebecca Dwight Bruff!


Robin Oliveira

New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author author of My Name is Mary Sutter, I Always Loved You, and Winter Sisters

I just finished reading Trouble the Water. It kept me turning the pages, one after another. I loved the goodness of the character Robert, his courage and kindness, the complexity of his relationship with the McKees. I loved returning to the low country, and my God, that writing toward the end about the tides: “When the tide is out, all the way out, you can smell creation…” That passage made me breathless.

lawrence rowland small.jpg

Lawrence S. Rowland

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of South Carolina Beaufort

Rebecca Bruff has told the remarkable story of the life and times of Robert Smalls. Escaped slave, Civil War combat hero and natural political leader of the Sea Island freedmen. Using all available scholarship, the author has created a believable and sensitive portrait of Smalls and the characters, black and white, who created a true American hero. Trouble the Water may become a Carolina classic.


The Feathered Quill Book Awards

Trouble the Water was awarded a First Place/ Gold prize for Debut Fiction, and First Place/Gold Prize for Adult Fictio

Here is a novel that succeeds on every level: its world and characters come alive (my favorite character, aside from the protagonist himself, is “Uncle George”); it entertains and the pages turn easily (I read it in 4 sittings, even though it’s over 300 pages long); it defamiliarizes and causes wonderment (as historical fiction does); it is symmetrical without being overwrought, formally tight without feeling forced (the Russian formalists would say that if you have a gun at the start of the story, it will eventually need to go off. Let’s just say that the prologue and the early chapters in this book “go off” by the end). So if you like that sort of thing in your historical fictions, then Trouble the Water should satisfy your readerly instincts. 


Kathryn Taylor

Author of Two Minus One: A Memoir

Rebecca Dwight Bruff has written a beautiful and poignant book about the darkest time in American history. Her characters step off the page to embrace the reader with their message and her writing is nearly musical in its delivery. The story is at once painful and profound and while disturbing in its message offers forgiveness and hope.


Anita Martin

Creator of Postcards & Authors blog

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…”*


Eileen Charbonneau

Award winning novelist whose books include The Connor Emerald, Rachel LeMoyne, The Randolph Legacy, and Waltzing in Ragtime. 

This luminous novel’s central events take place during the American Civil War, but this novelization of the life of Robert Smalls spans the 19th century. Smalls is mostly known for a single audacious deed, achieved when he was a slave: commandeering a Confederate warship out of Charleston harbor and surrendering it to Union forces. Around this amazing incident, author Bruff imagines the heroic life that preceded and followed it. It is told through Smalls’ point of view and enhanced by his mistress’s diary. Born into a small slaveholding community in Beaufort, South Carolina, Trouble (his basket name) experiences life as a more privileged house servant, fishing with his poetic master and playing with his owner’s children. But he also becomes a field hand, rented out as hotel staff and ship’s deck hand, rising to the level of trusted pilot. He has a mother who guides the formation of his conscience as he navigates his way through racially charged waters with a fierce compassion.

This is an extraordinary and healing gift to the literature of the South. Engaging, heartfelt and beautifully crafted, it shows the role religion played in maintaining slavery (“a scriptural institution”) and is peopled with characters that live on in the reader’s imagination. A life long-suppressed is here brought forth in light and depth and beauty. Highly recommended.


Cheryl H

Blogger Cover Lover Book Reviews

This book has the feel of a Great American Novel. The same sort of feel as The Grapes of Wrath, but dealing with slavery and oppression during the Civil War, rather than the economic hardships during the Great Depression.


With themes of race, religion, and relationships, Trouble The Water is a fictional story inspired by the heroic and hard life of Robert Smalls. I’m surprised I never heard of Smalls (nicknamed Trouble) before reading this book, seeing how his life notably impacted history.


As with most things in the South, the story takes its sweet time, in no hurry to reveal details before they’re needed. Softly and slowly, the reader journeys through Trouble’s days, where his view of Beaufort and the world as he saw it from the South Carolina low country is revealed. Actually, in this instance, I prefer the leisure approach which allows me to soak in the emotions, experience the hardships, losses, and anger through the eyes of a house slave, a field slave, a mother, and more.


It’s difficult to say I enjoyed this story, due to the ugliness of much of the subject matter, but I certainly will never forget it. I’ve learned so much and am changed—two important things I hope to gain through fiction and non-fiction alike. There is much beauty to be found within these pages.

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