Treading Water Globe and Mail review

Anne DeGrace’s debut novel follows the birth, life and death of the fictional town of Bear Creek, B.C., and eloquently uses water as the prevailing source of both life and death.

Bear Creek is based on the historical settlement of Renata, once situated on Lower Arrow Lake in the Kootenays. The book’s dedication gives a clear sense of what is to come: “To the community of Renata, British Columbia, and to all communities who lost their land to progress but kept their stories.”

The concept of “progress” may be debatable, but DeGrace makes lovely use of a series of slices into the lifetime of Bear Creek and its inhabitants, from the Mennonites who started the town to others seeking a home.

Treading Water starts in 1904, with the death of Gus the trapper, wounded by his own bear trap. It then moves quickly to 1905, when Frieda Hartmann gives birth. She and her husband, George, name the daughter Ursula, but for completely different reasons: “He is thinking about tradition, and our past, and the country of our parents and their parents. But I am thinking about the first child to be born in Bear Creek, our home, our Heimat. This, I also wish to honour.”

But it’s water that is the real focus of honour. As Frieda recounts her life in Manitoba before the Hartmanns’ move to B.C., she says, “When we lived in Manitoba, water had shaped my days. It had to be pumped, heated, drawn, wrung out, distributed. It washed, quenched, watered, scrubbed, cooled, and cooked. . . . When we came to British Columbia in 1899 George’s eyes grew round as my own at the abundance of water: lakes so big and wide they would never dry, and days and days of rain.”

It’s water that makes Bear Creek possible, and it’s water that will result in its destruction.

The novel tends to hurtle through time, and I frequently found myself absolutely engaged by a character, only to turn the page and find another leap in time. The 1905 chapter, for example, features the voices of three women — Frieda, Birthe (the midwife) and Justine (a native woman, also gifted with medical knowledge). Each of the three is herself worthy of a novel.

If any character manages to tie the stories together, it’s Ursula, the first baby of Bear Creek and almost the last person to leave. But as DeGrace bounds through time, huge chunks of Ursula’s life are unexplored. The author relentlessly focuses on the geographic meeting of land and water that forms the town. Ursula goes to study in Winnipeg, but her sojourn is briefly described.

It does afford DeGrace the opportunity to expand slightly the view into the suffragette movement, begun with Isobel, another fascinating character who originally comes to Bear Creek to care for an ailing sister, but who ends up staying and becoming a forceful town presence.

Other topics that DeGrace squeezes into the novel include shell shock: In the 1921 chapter, Mr. North, the teacher, suffers terribly from both his trauma and the cruelty of the children who make fun of him. In a scene that slides into sentimentality, North manages to communicate with his main tormentor, a boy who accidentally caused the drowning of his best friend. North feels guilty for having encouraged his own best friend to join the army, and then must live with survivor’s guilt. Man and boy bond over the losses of their best friends. It’s a bit too pat, even though it’s the kind of thing that could happen.

War again intrudes and brings a new person to Bear Creek in 1946: Aliesje Miller, a Dutch war bride, travels across the Atlantic on the Mauritania, then on the train to Nelson to join her husband. She’s another book-worthy character: “Here I am: somebody called Alice in a body not at all like my own in a country that is endlessly eating a white bread and egg sandwich beside a stranger who is telling me something I cannot understand while I wait for a man whose face I cannot remember.”

DeGrace has a particular sensitivity for female characters, and has created many good ones in this novel — along with a believable range of male characters and a splendid horse named Ace.

Bear Creek treads water until 1967, and then its most prized aspect is required elsewhere. A dam is built to send precious water south, and the community disperses. Wisely, DeGrace avoids a polemic about natural resources: It’s painfully clear that “progress” or development demands destruction.

DeGrace, a Nelson, B.C., resident, may not always achieve the heights she has set for herself in this novel, but she does achieve an immensely readable and realistic novel.

Candace Fertile teaches at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.

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