Cool Water, by Dianne Warren

Purchased at Amazon.ca

The appearance of Cool Water on this year’s Giller Prize longlist was a surprise — a regional novel that had attracted little attention hardly seemed to rate. So its absence from the shortlist is not really a surprise; the judges have done their job in attracting some attention but it was simply not good enough to go further. I salute the Real Jury on both counts: While it wasn’t going to go further, it is a novel that does deserve attention and I am very glad that I have read it.

I will declare a conflict of interest here. During the first summer of my newspaper reporting life, I embarked on a project centred on writing about the challenges facing small-town Alberta, an eight-week “camping” trip in a VW van that produced a six-part series that I am proud of to this day. A good part of that research was spent in the near-desert of south-eastern Alberta — Cool Water is set just across the border in the near-desert country of Saskatchewan, between Swift Current and the Alberta border. And its central focus is the town of Juliet, a struggling settlement (much like so many of those that I visited more than 40 years ago), with its own problems, social hierarchy and cast of characters who could be found in equal measure at more than a dozen places along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

Consider, for example, Lee Torgeson, left as a foundling on a dryland farm doorstep, adopted as a “nephew” by Astrid and Lester, now dead, and, by default, heir to their land:

At the age of twenty-six, Lee knows he is capable, in theory at least, of managing the land he’s inherited. The knowledge of his legacy is one he grew up with, and Lester prepared him well. But as darkness falls each night and bedtime looms, uneasiness settles over him, grows stronger as he climbs the stairs to the second storey where the bedrooms are. Astrid and Lester’s room across the hall from his, their clothing removed from the dresser drawers with the help of neighbour women but their possessions still ordered with care on the closet shelves. The photographs still on the walls. The bed neatly made as though Astrid herself had tucked in the sheets. Their bedroom reminds him more than any other part of the house that he’s alone.

Or how about Willard Shoenfield, operator of the Juliet movie drive-in. He has lived with his brother all his life, then with his brother’s wife as well, and now he and Marian are what is left.

Willard’s most famous exploit was buying Antoinette the camel so he could sell camel rides to tourists passing through on the Number One Highway. He came up with the idea after he heard the provincial minister of tourism talk about the uniqueness of the Saskatchewan landscape and about how Americans were generally better than Canadians at recognizing potential gold mines in the tourist industry. Willard looked around. He saw sand. He bought a camel from a wild animal park in Alberta and painted a huge sign in the shape of a cactus, saying, SNAKE HILLS CAMEL RIDES: SEE THE DESERT THE WAY GOD MEANT YOU TO.

The Vegreville pysanka

Okay, that sounds weird but remember in real life not so far up the road we have a landing pad for extra-terrastrial visitors (St. Paul), the world’s largest Ukrainian easter egg (Vegreville) and countless other (equally non-successful) tourist attractions. Economic life in Juliet is tough: There isn’t just the climate (drought and drifting sand), there are the day-to-day disasters (an escaped horse, a wandering herd of cattle, desecration of the “big rock” by teenagers with paint cans) and the need to find something different (the Oasis cafe owner is trying out a version of key lime pie, with some success).

And contrasted to all this is history — not centuries, like in the United Kingdom, but rather decades. In Juliet’s case, a horse race — a 100-mile challenge between the young buck, Ivan Dodge, and the old veteran, Henry Merchant. That was back before Juliet was founded (it was cattle country then) but is a foundation of the area history to this day. A version of that ride is one of the threads of the book.

I have only provided background on two of the central characters. Warren tells her story through alternating updates on a half-dozen — the town bank manager (with pregnant unmarried daughter), a near bankrupt farmer (with six kids), the local hairdresser and a passing-through divorcee who loses her horse are among the others.

The result is an entirely convincing picture of what is involved in a rural Western North American community, even at this point in the 21st century. Nothing dramatic (except of course for the individuals involved) happens in this book — for the individuals involved, everything that happens is dramatic.

I suspect that you might have to know this part of the world for this novel to succeed (Americans who know Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado, among other western states, will find familiar themes here). I do know and love this part of the world and the novel does succeed — it will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a valuable addition to my shelves. And if your curisoity is sparked at all, check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Who Has Seen The Wind for a similar novel written a half-century ago — not much has changed in the rural West, you will discover. And I am delighted that talented authors are still writing about it.

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15 Responses to “Cool Water, by Dianne Warren”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Thanks for the link, Kevin. I will keep this one on the radar, as I do enjoy novels set in small rural towns, usually in the west.

    And it is hard to believe people will not drive hundreds of miles to see the World’s Largest Ukrainian Easter Egg. Surely, you have you facts wrong. (heh).

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Okay, some do. But once you have seen it once, there is not a lot of motivation to make a return visit.

  3. whisperinggums Says:

    I thoroughly enjoy – well-written – stories about small rural towns so this would appeal to me, I think. I’ve enjoyed some Australian ones including Kate Grenville’s The idea of perfection (it also has a bank manager – but with a very uptight wife) and Rosalie Ham’s The dressmaker. They sound a little different to what you are talking about but they do have that flavour of small town rural life and the struggle to survive – psychologically, mentally and/or physically.

    BTW DO you mean its appearance on the Giller LONGLIST in your first sentence?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    WG: I definitely did mean longlist — thanks for the correction and I have made the adjustment.

    I do think the towns rural Australia and Canada have a lot in common. While I don’t know Kate Grenville’s short stories, I have found that her novels certainly give me “Canadian” food for thought (the bank manager’s wife in this one is domineering as opposed to uptight). And all three of the “struggles” that you mention are present in this novel — together with the overarching struggle of trying to come to terms with personal history.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Having grown up in a small rural town (population around 100) in Oz, I like the sound of this one. I’ve noted Whispering Gums’ comment about Kate Grenville — I need to bump that particular book up my TBR.

    As an aside, I do think you need to write your memoirs, Kevin. What newspaper could ever afford to send a reporter off on an 8 week trip to write a 6-part series these days?? It sounds like an amazing and interesting thing to do…

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kim: Given that upbringing, I’d suspect you would find some echoes in this novel.

    As for that assignment (and it was at the end of my first year as a reporter so I was all of 22), it was fascinating — I remember some of the interviews and places I visited to this day. And you are quite right that no newspaper now would make a similar investment.

  7. Gavin Says:

    I am waiting for this one to be published in the US and have been searching for a copy of Who Has Seen The Wind. Thanks for the review and the link to Kerry’s review.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gavin: I can’t find any indication of a U.S. publication date for this one — so you might need to try one of the online sellers who bring books in from Canada (or invest the extra funds in ordering from Chapters or Amazon in Canada — the extra shipping is not really that prohibitive if you want the book and you could add the Mitchell to the order since it is available here). Sorry about that.

  9. Gavin Says:

    I’ve discovered some Canadian books are never published here. Then I just go searching online for used copies. Thanks for your suggestions!

  10. Stephen Ring Says:

    Just about finished Cool Water and located your review admidsts some others I looked at. Appreciated the background insights of the unusual tourist attractions. Our picture of the world created by the novelist increases as we become aware of what the area islike and the struggles and issues of small western towns in real life so we know where fiction draws its reality from. For a first novel,this is a promising beginning to this author’s move into this genre.

    As you say,it made the Giller longlist if not the shortlist. What are your predictions of its changes now that it has been nominated as one of the five for the Governor General award.

    P.S. I was at a book reading this Thursday given by Joan Clark (Latitutdes of Melt), and we asked about her favourite authors. She mentioned Joan Thomas author of Curiousity, and also had great praise for Dianne Warren. You may note her quote on Cool Water.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stephen: For me, the strongest part of this book was the memories that it raised of communities and areas that I know a little bit about but not much (I am an urban guy). I can see the comparison to Joan Thomas (I’ve just finished Curiosity and a review will be up in a couple of days) — both writers are very clear and straightforward, faithful to the reality of the period or community that they are writing about.

    As for the G-G, I’m not sure — that award has always been difficult to predict. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Cool Water won but I don’t think I’d regard it as the favorite.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cool Water has won the 2010 Governor-General’s award for English fiction. I am quite happy with that decision — it is a very Canadian novel and I congratulate Dianne Warren on her success.

  13. RickP Says:

    Just finished this. I ws pleasantly surprised. I largely agree with your comments. I definitely had affection for the book and I’m glad it won the GG.

    I really enjoyed a couple of the storylines and though the others were average.

    I think it could have been good enough for a Giller shortlisting though definitely not strong enough to win.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: You and I are in agreement. It is a very “Canadian” book and captures an aspect of the country (both setting and people) that made it an enjoyable and worthwhile read. For me, that makes it a suitable G-G winner — I agree that I expect something more literary from the Giller. A few weeks on, I find myself remembering some scenes very well, although aspects of the book as a whole are starting to fade.

  15. RickP Says:

    By far the storyline that sticks with me is the theatre owner who is sharing a house with his dead brothers’ wife. The others have already faded to some degree.

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