Dianne Warren’s fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan is the sort of place urbanites tend to notice when, in the course of driving from one city to the next or maybe to and from the lake, their cars or stomachs demand fuel. Perhaps you have been one of these folks, pulling off the highway and into the nearest small prairie town to gas up, one hand on the nozzle as you take in the prospect of a dusty Main Street with
its handful of shops and businesses and wonder briefly what the lives of the townspeople could possibly be like. In this Governor General’s Award-winning novel, Dianne Warren aims to reveal the interior lives of her rural characters. Like the landscape of Juliet, her novel’s terrain is “simple…Yet in the surface…she [sees] patterns as intricate and complicated as the veins in an insect’s wings.”
Despite its sleepy appearance, Juliet has more than its share of insomniacs who are haunted by the ghosts of trains, planes, buffalo, people, horses and even a camel. From Lee Torgeson, the young farmer whose aunt and uncle have died and who misses his childhood “not because it was easier, but because there were people in it,” to the aged Willard Shoenfeld, who worries that his widowed sister-in-law will move out and leave him to his own company, to the Dolson family whose “farm is mostly gone,” to Norval Birch, the henpecked bank manager whose “job description includes…. [t]olling the death knell for people like Blaine Dolson,” each lonely character longs for the comfort of home and the stability it promises.
Such longing is rooted deep in Juliet’s history, stretching back for a century and more, and Warren evokes it by recounting “a hundred-mile horse race through the dunes and the grasslands of the Little Snake Hills” that pits young cock-o’-the-walk Ivan Dodge against veteran cowboy Henry Merchant:
Popular support went to the elder. That was because Ivan Dodge was arrogant and needed to be brought down a peg or two. It was right that Henry Merchant win the race, and so the cowboys and the townspeople and the settlers alike bet their money on the veteran, believing in life lessons and confident that Ivan Dodge would be taught one.
However, when Dodge bests Merchant, the bettors are “sombre, not because of money lost, but because they’d been so certain. This was a determined lot who wanted badly to believe in the future. It was disconcerting to be wrong.” Warren describes the farm families returning to homesteads that, in the wake of the loss, “suddenly felt tentative.”
Fast forward a century and the aftermath of the race still resonates as many of Juliet’s residents struggle to hold onto family farms that haven’t felt the caress of rain in years and are under threat of being swallowed up by the constantly shifting sands, oil and gas interests, and, most worrisome, the bank.
Warren juxtaposes the farm families’ new uncertainty about their place on the prairie with the image of a dying Henry Merchant envying them “their self-contained lives and the privacy of the homes they’d built to return to at the end of the day… he imagined himself stealing away from his ranch hand’s life into a new one, on a piece of land with his name on the deed….” As Merchant’s “departure became a certainty, his heart slowed and his body lightened… tomorrow was cool and clear, like water on his tongue.” Adjusting his perspective on home and enlarging his possibilities is what slakes Merchant’s thirst, and Warren’s other characters must learn to follow suit, despite the pain that transformation demands.
However, if Cool Water has a flaw it is that its protagonists seem to resolve their problems rather too quickly in the end, although it is to Warren’s credit that she leaves the threat of violence born of desperation hanging in the air at the Dolson farm.
Taking place in approximately twenty-four hours, from one sleepless night all the way through the next, and delving into the lives of several characters present and past, Cool Water has an immediacy that challenges rumours of fiction’s irrelevance to our culture. In quiet tones, and with notable empathy for her characters, whether they are thirteen years old or eighty, Warren crafts a compelling story of a group of distinct yet intertwined characters contending with “the imperfections in everything” and entices the reader, who likely knows a thing or two about life’s shortcomings, into the world of Juliet. Despite the encroachments of reality television, cell phones, Blackberries and Pizza Pockets, reading Cool Water feels like stepping sideways to a place where there is still room for important questions (Why did my mother abandon me, and did she ever think of me again? How will I go on without this person in my life? Will we always be poor?).
And yet Juliet is not to be trusted, a farm town tacked onto a fragile landscape of sand, a sandscape. Such a thing cannot withstand much poking and prodding and, invoking Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Warren invites readers to consider “the sand in [our] own backyard, or the inevitable end of [our] own empires.” How can we look upon what we have wrought, she seems to ask, and not despair? So often and so thoroughly have we misread the land and what it can bear that urbanite and farmer alike stand to suffer greatly unless we manage to break free of our old patterns of thought and deed. As Warren writes at book’s end, “The wind blows until dawn, releasing the past, howling at the boundaries of the present. The land forever changing shape.” And so our story will change, whether we will or no.
Phyllis Bruce Books Perennial | 336 pages | $19.99, paper | ISBN 978-1554685592