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review: fiction

Dianne Warren

As I was reading Dianne Warren's intricate novel, Cool Water, I found myself unable to get Marty Robbins's old trail song of the same name out of my head. Most earworms can irritate a good story, but in a conjunction of mood, that ballad seemed to enhance the joyous melancholy of the book.

In Cool Water, Dianne Warren takes up the challenge of portraying a present-day prairie town, depicting Juliet, Saskatchewan, as a metaphor for the changing agrarian West. The Little Snake hills surrounding the town are an emblem of its shifting past and a reminder that this was an area at one time deemed unsuitable for crops.

The novel takes place over the long course of a single day, echoing the same day in history years ago when an old cowboy and a young cowboy competed in a 100-mile horse ride reaching to the far corners of the settlement.

Juliet, not quite forgotten by time, lives out its rituals, remembers its history and imagines the future through a kaleidoscope of characters. The people who call Juliet home are now less certain of their future than their optimistic ancestors were. But, as with any community, their lives are subtly interwoven, glancing against one another at various moments.

Norval Birch, the bank manager, can hardly bear to carry out the miserable job of having to tell people that they have no more credit. Willard Shoenfeld watches over one of the last outdoor picture shows, the Desert Drive-in, unable to speak or understand his love. Meanwhile, Lynn Trass, the amazing cook who runs the Oasis Café and who does not dare to trust her washed-up cowboy husband, struggles with betrayal.

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The Dolsons, a family with six children who have had to sell all their land except the home quarter, seem unable to stop their spiralling ill fortune. By contrast, Lee Torgeson, who has inherited his prosperous farm from his adoptive parents, feels uncertain of how to occupy his lucky gift.

Lee undertakes a reprise of that historic ride on a horse that appears in the night like an apparition. His journey across "a hundred square miles of farms and ranches, pasture and cultivated fields, sand and coulees" sets the tone for the novel's contemplation on the subtle and magical ecology of the great sand hills.

A mixture of archetypes and surprises, the characters in Cool Water endure and prevail. However much they step out of a sepia background, they embody the resilience (a cliché is born out of actuality) that persists in the west. Determination partners hard work and frugality as opposed to luck. "Making ends meet" has more than one meaning in Cool Water: It conveys the surprise of potential happiness against all odds.

The challenge of how to capture the mysterious West in words continues to haunt Canadian writing. Once doomed by tonal hopelessness, the prairie novel is as elusive as ever it has been. But despite inevitable echoes of forerunners like As For Me and My House, and Who Has Seen the Wind?, Warren celebrates this inspiring landscape and its denizens.

Atmospherically, Cool Water is unforgettable. It captures a world of yard-lights and night owls (real ones), poplars and buffalo stones. This terrain, "so vast and simple, reduced to sky and grass and sand," still awes the puny humans who celebrate small victories under its sweep.

Despite the prevailing belief that everybody knows everything in Juliet, they do not know what they know and so must seek to understand their own desires. Faced with many choices, they choose to stay in Juliet, on the edge of those dunes. They may temporarily long to be somewhere else, but they yearn even more to find happiness in this wonderfully unfathomable place.

Aritha van Herk is a firm believer in the endless imaginative potential of the West. She lives and writes in Calgary.

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