The recommended reading lists for postgraduate writing students, or any literature students for that matter, include everything from academic texts to classics, and prize-winning novels. The postgraduate reading choices are limitless. Time is not.
Working toward completion of a thesis or writing project submission within a two-year framework, while making time for research (not counting tangential adventuring on Google and JSTOR) and the writing itself, means that some judicious reading choices have to be made. It is exciting when the research, reading, and writing come together in a book that also captures your imagination and is difficult to put down.
Cool Water, by Dianne Warren, the 2010 fiction category recipient of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards– known affectionately as the GGs–was one such novel.
Appointed Governor General of Canada by George the V, Lord Tweedsmuir initiated the prestigious awards in 1937. The GGs, the Giller, and the Griffin Poetry prize encompass the trifecta of Canadian literary awards.
This is Warren’s first novel. She has previously published and won awards for her short stories and plays. She has also received a “woman writer in mid-career” award.
My MA project is a long narrative partially set in Saskatchewan, that oddly-shaped rectangular province, seemingly in the middle of the map of Canada, once home to Archibald Belaney, better known as Grey Owl. In addition, according to the online Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, “the province of Saskatchewan received its name from the Cree word kisiskâciwan, which describes the ‘fast-flowing’ Saskatchewan River.”
Cool Water introduces you to southern Saskatchewan, but its themes connect with all farming communities who are struggling with their own history and change. It also offers a study of the successful crafting of a novel’s form.
I was curious to discover how Warren would tell a modern story about this place and its people in light of what has already been written by authors like Wallace Stegner, W. O. Mitchell, and Sharon Butala. Reading as a writer, I wanted to see how Warren’s specificity expands to universal themes, and to examine her use of multiple voices.
Warren’s book explores the history of a farming community in the midst of difficult times. It begins with a 100-mile horse race through the “dunes and the grasslands of the Little Snake Hills” near the fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan. Following the riders in a 100-mile square track, Warren drops us into a land now empty of “great woolly herds of buffalo” and being “divided into townships and sections and quarter-sections for men with one-way plows.”
While echoing the past, the subsequent chapters take place within a 24-hour period in present day Juliet. Among the characters we meet are Lynn, the Oasis Café owner, and her perhaps unfaithful husband Hank, Vicki and Blaine who have sold all but the “home quarter” to survive, Lee the adopted 26 year-old who gave up a university scholarship for farming, awake on a night “rife with the presence of ghosts,” and Willard and Marian struggling with unrequited love.
Warren writes flawed characters without falling into stereotypes of harried mothers, adulterous lovers, or poor farmers. She skillfully portrays people who, as Vicki’s character says, try “to see the best” within their own consciousness and the changing environment.
Applying the third person limited omniscient point of view to a set of characters in rotation is an often-used form, but in the hands of less skilled writers, you can find yourself rereading chapters or flipping back and forth trying to recapture the narrative thread.
Warren successfully manages this technique by subtly linking each character’s story to the past or next tale, moving back and forth, embedding fates, and carrying people, animals, and objects through time in a landscape that is at once magical (complete with camel) and contained.
With all that needs to be read and written within the next year, this book was a gratifying way to pass a weekend while adding to my bibliography and academic research.