The Author
Rebecca Bruff
The Books

Trouble the Water

Publisher Koehler Books, May 14 2019

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 that most perilous edge.

 Only the slave can fathom the price and the cost of freedom: life or death. Not only my life, but that of my wife, our children. And not our family alone, but my crewmates, their women, their babies. My friends. Sixteen of us. Fifteen people trusting me.

 Tonight we will survive to live an unknown future of freedom, or perish to the dark and watery depths. Men. Women. Babies. Sixteen lives hanging in the balance.

 Every moment, every experience, every longing has led here. Every work-weary day, every sorrow-soaked night, every step on every road, every hurt and every hope, every echo of the cry of every slave I’d known, every whisper of every distant dream; they’ve all led to this, tonight.

 Tonight. Now.
Or never.

Set in the crucible of the civil war and based on the inspiring true story of an unsung hero, Trouble the Water is an ambitious, layered, and ultimately satisfying journey of yearning, love, loss, friendship, and hope. Robert Smalls, born enslaved and witness to both great privilege and great suffering, grows up alongside his owner’s daughter and the dangerous son of a firebrand secessionist. At the age of 12, he’s sent to work in Charleston, where he loads ships and begins to learn to pilot a cotton steamer. When war erupts and the cotton steamer becomes a confederate warship, he seizes a high risk opportunity to pursue freedom for himself and the woman and children he loves. Trouble the Water navigates the rich tributaries of courage, family, betrayal, faith, risk, forgiveness, tragedy, and redemption, and delivers a noble and – until now – unknown hero.

See here an interview with Rebecca Bruff


“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 felt as I read as if I were in that family, as if I were a part of their lives, as if I were standing next to them when everything happened. I loved the angry Peter, too, and how he changed. 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.” — Robin Oliveira, author of My Name is Mary Sutter

“Using many voices, Rebecca Bruffe has told the remarkable story of the life and times of Capt. Robert Smalls (1839-1915). Escaped slave, Civil War combat hero and natural political leader of the Sea Island freedmen, Robert Smalls was one of the founding fathers of Black America. 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.” — Lawrence S. Rowland, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Univ. of South Carolina Beaufort

“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. — Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

Trouble the Water