It seems impossible that we—Montrealers, Canadians, the whole world— are only now ending our first week of “social isolation”: our best shot, as a species, of slowing the rate of contagion of the coronavirus. There. I’ve written it, but I promise I won’t do it again. We need a break.
We all know, now, that this astonishing, frightening, resolve-testing, harrowing experience is just beginning. Our immense planet has shrunk down to a very small sphere for most of us. It has become the space of our homes, our cars and not much else, and we now feel the way penned horses must.
Thankfully, there is reading and television and streaming and social media and phones and family and friends. The newsletter I receive every morning from the New York Times [which you have digital free access to with your MULTI Card] featured a section today (March 20th) titled How To Avoid Doomsurfing, which of course is a reference to spending hours and hours mostly online (but I would even say that it includes all media sources), fixated on getting constant updates about the pandemic.
It was a great collection of links, and I was reminded of the BIBLIOTHERAPY category we have here at the Online Book Club (just look at the category list on the right side of your screen, once you have clicked on any blog post). I’ve decided to stock it with even more reading suggestions, which means that the next few posts will be about books that elevate the soul and/or strengthen the reader’s faith in humanity while infusing the reader with both serenity and joy. Some of these will be exuberant and energetic and others, gently effective.
Dianne Warren’s first novel, COOL WATER, is a lovely, quiet story set in southern Saskatchewan, in this century, which won the Governor General’s Prize in 2010. The small fictional town in which its characters’ lives unfold is Juliet, in Snake Hills. I only found out once I had finished it and was looking at some of the original reviews of the book, that it too, like KING, unfolds during a single day in the lives of its characters. I hadn’t noticed (such was its tranquil progression) and it didn’t matter. Within just a few pages, I had travelled back in time, to when I was a university student on an exchange trip to the prairies of Saskatchewan, experiencing the flatness, the great expanses of fields and grasslands and blowing sand. It was all coming back to me.
All of these are exquisitely brought to life by Dianne Warren. One feels the scorching summer heat, the relentless sun, the bone dry air and soil, and the love the people of Juliet have for their home and their reluctance to leave it, even though for many of them, the promise of prosperity that first drew their ancestors to this land has all but vanished.
The novel has a cinematic feel, as if Warren had kept a camera rolling as she moved through the homes and workplaces of her characters whose journeys are deftly interconnected.
The story begins on a warm moonlit night. A grey Arabian horse, the property of a woman called Joni, escapes from the trailer in which it is being held, and runs out into the darkness. It is found by Lee Torgeson who, in his mid-twenties, is the adopted son of Lester and Astrid, both deceased. Lee is instantly smitten by the creature, saddles up, and rides out into the night.
Lee’s attachment to—and journey through—the wide-open landscape and his loving memories of Lester and Astrid, provide the framework of the novel. As it moves through the hours of this summer day, we become acquainted with Blaine and Vicki Dolson and their six rambunctious children who make us laugh, but also cause us heartache. Blaine has all but buried himself in debt, and is about to lose his house, the last piece of the farm that has been held by the Dolson family for generations. He and Vicki are shouldering their worries in radically different ways, he with simmering anger and soul-crushing sadness–and yet, he chooses love every time. Vicki copes with a mixture of kindness and ditziness that would exasperate a saint.
Next, there is Norval Birch—a good man with an impossible job. He is the bank manager Blaine Dolson holds responsible for his ruin, And there is his exacting wife Lila, and their daughter Rachelle, 18 years old and pregnant by Kyle. Though Norval’s doing well, he carries on his shoulders the fates of far too many of his neighbours. He is a sweet, tragic man.
There is also Willard Shoenfeld and his sister-in-law Marian (his brother Ed’s widow), who have continued to live under the same roof since Ed’s sudden death. They are old enough to be going grey, but not so old that their hearts and bodies have ceased to yearn. Marian’s signals seem clear enough but Willard is convinced that she plans to leave the farm, and him. They struggle to reach out to each other in a confusing silence that extends into their nights:
“Willard hears a creak outside his door and realizes that Marian is still there. He sits up and checks the clock: 3:20. She’s never before stood there for twenty minutes. […] He decides that she isn’t there at all, and is about to lie down again when he hears another creak and Marian pushes the door and swings it slowly open. In the moonlight Willard can see her in the doorway. She’s like a ghost in her long nightgown. He swallows and prepares himself for what she is sure to say: I’m sorry Willard, the time has come…But then she pulls the door closed again without speaking, and Willard hears the footsteps padding back down the hallway.”
There is Hank Trass, a rancher, and his wife Jill who runs a restaurant, the Oasis, in Juliet. Their signals have become crossed as well, and memories of her husband’s past infidelities have fuelled a new fear and turned Jill’s day into a ceaseless torment. Meanwhile, Karla, the local hairdresser who cares for her paralysed father, can’t seem to find a way beyond her on again/off again no-good boyfriend.
Cool Water is the perfect novel through which to escape the confines of our difficult present. It’s a novel filled with limitless blue skies, meaningful silences, lust and longing, and uncomplicated, simple human decency.
“The wind blows until dawn, releasing the past, howling at the boundaries of the present.
The land forever changing shape.
The the east, the pale pink of early morning.”
–Dianne Warren, Cool Water