Study Guide

Dark Water

By Laura McNeal

Dark Water Introduction

Ah, young love. It's the source of butterflies in stomachs, countless sweaty palms, thousands of outfit changes, and the deaths of beloved family members. Or so it generally goes when fifteen-year-old Pearl spots a handsome guy juggling and miming on the side of the road. Naturally she wants to know more. Can you blame her? The guy's got mad skills as a performer and he's major eye candy. So begins the tale of forbidden love and burning flames told by Laura McNeal in her 2010 novel, Dark Water.
As you might've guessed (based on the whole "dead family member" bit), things go south for Pearl when she has to choose between love and family as wildfires start to threaten everything in her life. Yep, we're talking real flames, not just the sparks of romance.

This 2010 National Book Award Finalist deals with some big questions, not just about love and loyalty, but about immigration laws. And as it does, it forces readers to think about how they impact individual people's lives. Tragedy and guilt are in the mix, too, with all these tough threads woven together through a compelling tale of young—and totally forbidden—love.

So if you've ever been in love with someone you weren't supposed to be with, or you've dealt with something out of your control (like a fire) ruining your life, or you're just curious about immigration laws and how they affect people, you'll be able to relate to Pearl. After all, she's a teenager dealing with a lot of the same stuff we all do when we're coming of age. Minus the juggling mime, of course.

What is Dark Water About and Why Should I Care?

Dark Water might as well be a litmus test for your level of cynicism: Are these crazy kids the two most romantic lovers in all of history, or are they just a couple of hormone-crazed kids who would bail on each other the first time one of them woke up with a pimple or had a bad day at work?

On the one hand, Pearl really cares about Amiel. She's willing to risk her life (and her uncle's) for him, even if she doesn't understand why he can't go get help. On the other hand, Pearl makes a lot of dumb decisions when it comes to Amiel. We don't think hiding out in the woods in the midst of a big fire is the best idea, and we might even ask ourselves why Amiel goes along with the plan. Doesn't love involve putting someone else's needs before your own?

If you're a teenager, or ever were one, or are looking forward to being one, then you'll know that sometimes things (and people) are way more attractive because they're forbidden, especially when your parents are still making decisions for you. We can't help but wonder whether Pearl is just attracted to Amiel because she's told he's off limits. But to be fair, that might just be our cynical side coming through.

The best part about this book is that what to make of Pearl and Amiel is left up to us (the readers) to decide. Are these two crazy kids really in love? We'll leave that for you to decide. But as you form your opinion, be aware that it's a clue into your own personality and whether you're a hardened cynic or a hopeless romantic.

Dark Water Resources


Home Away From Home
Author Laura McNeal shares a website with her hubby and fellow author, Tom. Click on through for info about their books, their careers, and a whole lot more.

Articles and Interviews

Tell All
Laura McNeal answers questions about the inspiration for her book, what it's like to co-author with her husband, and her own experience with wildfire.

Home Is Where the Writer Is
If you've ever wanted to see inside the author's home, now's your chance. We want to go there.


Welcome to Fallbrook
The sunny locale isn't imaginary—in fact, the author herself lives there—so here's a glimpse of the setting.

Fire, Fire
The October 23, 2007 wildfire in Fallbrook was no joke. Like, no joke at all.

Avocados Everywhere
When you own an avocado orchard like Hoyt, that's what happens. Grab a spoon and dig in.

Tell Us a Story
Author Laura McNeal strikes a pose.