Watershed

By Astrid Blodgett

by Doreen Vanderstoop
Freehand Books
2020/$22.95/360 pp.

Doreen Vanderstoop’s debut novel, Watershed, is a disturbing glimpse into Alberta’s future: The year is 2058; the glaciers have dried up, the rivers run dry. Calgary, where the novel is partly set, is desolate. Many people sit and wait for rivers to fill again or, simply, to die. People wear masks. (Not for a virus, nor the smoke drifting in from the ongoing forest fires, but for Valley Fever, a fungal disease that originated in Arizona.) Water is trucked from northern Alberta—desalinated seawater, piped from the west coast through the Northern Gateway Pipeline to its end point at Bruderheim—to the south. Every drop of water ($364/person/month or $8.50 by the half-litre bottle in the city) is carefully rationed. Water terrorists in northern Alberta—the Northern Water Army—fight to keep the water from going south.

Willa, the main character, and her husband, Calvin, live on a farm south of Calgary. Their only child, Daniel, has left; he earned his degree, unsurprisingly, in hydrogeology, and has just landed a job with the Crown corporation that is building an extension to the water pipeline into the south.

The storyline moves between Willa’s world and Daniel’s, though this is primarily the story of Willa and her deep concerns about the uncertain future and how to respond to it. The novel ultimately is an exploration of home and homelessness, a reality we may all face as the effects of climate change take hold: for Willa, and so many others, there is nowhere to go. Some of her neighbours have left and are now homeless; they live in Tent Town east of Calgary. Home, of course, is also family. Willa’s home is the land, which for her is connected to her father, whom she refused to leave at 13 years old when her mother bailed out of farm life. Her father is in the trees they planted together, now dead; he is in the place where he took Daniel camping. To leave the land is to leave her father, even after his death. This yearning for family comes through even in Willa’s apparent indifference to her mother’s departure—and Willa’s refusal to reconcile—which belies what might be her deeper response, as she seeks and makes home and family in other ways.

The reader may puzzle over the lack of tension between Willa and Calvin (despite insurmountable debt, sick goats, drought, Valley Fever and Willa’s worrisome hallucinations, the two never argue), and many of the secondary characters are not as well drawn as the main characters. Yet the story is tight and moves steadily forward. Vanderstoop keeps the tone from becoming too heavy, largely through Daniel, who remains optimistic and hopeful despite a private family burden, but also through Willa, who finds her way by finding family wherever she lands.

—Astrid Blodgett is an Edmonton short story writer and editor.

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