Audrey J. Whitson’s excellent new novel,The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning, starts with the act of witching in Alberta, which is to say the story is both a complex tale and a social commentary. Witching, also known as dowsing, or divining for water, is here a skill and a talent that is ancient, elemental and of the land, both metaphysical and practical.
Annie, the eponymous water witcher, is an elderly and influential presence in her home of small town Majestic, Alberta. While out in the country with her divining rod (a sort of crooked, wooden stick tool) searching for water, she’s hit by lightning. Her death and funeral bring out the history and individual tales of the people in the town, and the book is told through their varied, interwoven voices.
Structurally, the too-obvious corollary is William Faulkner’s high modernist As I Lay Dying, also featuring alternating voices, including one from beyond the grave. Unlike the fluidity of that tale, Whitson’s is more a patchwork of intimately observed and felt lives. The risk with such a story is that some characters are often more compelling than others, and it’s a testament to Whitson’s skill that all are necessary. As the novel moves between Annie narrating her past, characters plotting the town’s history, and others preparing for her funeral (Annie’s lover Jack, left alone to struggle with his grief, is a particularly heartbreaking character), it leaves the reader feeling as if they too are a kind of spirit, given access to hover among these lives.
The compendium of voices also allows for passages of real beauty, particularly those by Annie herself, such as this early display of her divining skills: “Palms down, both forks of the wand gripped, one in each hand, I try to feel the water drawing down from the branch, the crook in my hands speaking to the crook in my legs, to the tingling in my feet.”
Visceral language helps Whitson to show the more social concerns of the book, chronicling the slow decline of a rural Alberta town that may be familiar to many. The farmers still work the land but they see the town doctor for chest pains and Ativan. There’s worrying drought and an increasingly erratic climate. The young are departing for the city. Annie’s death brings with it a sense of doubt and aimlessness for the future, as well as a confrontation as the traumatic and painful details of her life (related to a dark institutional chapter of Alberta’s past that I won’t reveal here) slowly begin to emerge.
Whitson’s novel is, by the end, a reckoning with the past, both personal and communal, but also a tale of joy—the earthy preparations for the dead and a divining born of the body.
—Bryn Evans is a writer and social worker in Calgary.