by Doreen Vanderstoop
ISBN: 9781988298597 / 1988298598
Freehand Books, May 2, 2020
355 pages, $22.95
Dystopian fiction should feel frighteningly possible yet reassuringly unlikely, but Doreen Vanderstoop’s debut novel, Watershed, is a convincing prediction of days to come. As we confront life in a global pandemic—food shortages, business closures, symptoms that evolve and confound—a society facing severe climate upheaval is suddenly plausible. Our collective feeling of dread is underscored by the still-lingering memories of recent catastrophic weather events such as hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and the relentless headlines of new plagues to come—an army of cicadas and the delightfully terrifying “murder hornets.” Living as we are in this bewildering time, Watershed chose the perfect moment to arrive.
The year is 2058 and the glaciers are gone. In rural southern Alberta, Canada, years of flooding have been followed by years of drought, and people are struggling to survive. The novel opens on the dusty and dry Van Bruggen goat farm as they receive their weekly water delivery, an expensive reality in this dystopic future. Willa Van Bruggen and her husband Calvin work tirelessly to keep the farm going, wearing masks to protect from the viral spores in the dust that blows endlessly across a landscape increasingly devoid of healthy trees and vegetation. One of the most compelling elements of this novel is how Vanderstoop weaves together mundane farming tasks with the small but significant changes brought by a warmer, drier, far less forgiving climate.
Willa is a formidable character—the farm matriarch who learned the trade from her own father and is determined to hang on to “the old ways” no matter the consequences. But nostalgia comes with a cost, and Willa must soon reckon with a secret about her father’s death that threatens her relationship with her son Daniel as well as her own faith. Meanwhile, Daniel flees the farm to take a job with Crystel, a water-regulation body at the epicenter of a looming dispute over the life-sustaining resource. Crystel is converting the now-defunct oil pipelines into waterlines to finally bring fresh water from the prosperous North to the rural South. However, many fear that Crystel intends to divert Canadian water to the desperate market in the United States, and Daniel soon finds himself spying on his new bosses to find out the truth. In a time of oil pipeline disputes across the world’s friendliest border and fights over access to vaccines, this fear and mistrust easily hits its mark with the reader.
Willa and Daniel live in the climate change future of our nightmares—we’re all still here, but the quality of life has deteriorated in unexpected ways. Calgary, once the thriving center of Canada’s oil industry, is now desolate and impoverished. Bandits roam the dangerous streets which are dotted with portable toilets that substitute for the running water of days gone by. Worse, suspicion has replaced the once-friendly relationships among neighbors. Vanderstoop’s Alberta is a picture of an achingly familiar civilization that is on a slow but steady slide backwards in time.
What hasn’t changed, however, is reliance on the rich and powerful to find solutions to our most pressing problems and the fact that those problems affect the rich and the poor differently. As in real life, Watershed’s characters individually swing from burgeoning hope to the ruthless practicality that has dominated the climate change debate for decades. Vanderstoop’s novel depicts how national protectionism turns regional and then local, fostering the “every man for himself” mantra of the quintessential dystopia.
Willa and Daniel’s contrasting approach to resource scarcity reflects the left versus right political divide currently raging in North America; while Willa’s community rallies together to battle the drought, Daniel must confront the northerners who seem willing to sacrifice their southern neighbors in service to their own comfortable way of life. Yet it seems that neither any place nor any person is exactly what they seem; Vanderstoop resists the urge to create characters who fit easily into the mold of either angel or villain, inviting the reader to grapple with the consequences of such binary thinking.
The world created by Vanderstoop in Watershed kept me intrigued. Willa’s character was the most fully developed, and she emerges as both a frustratingly flawed but also a sympathetic woman facing impossible choices. Her determination to cling to an old way of life reminded me of our real-world resistance to change; our reliance on fossil fuels is an obvious example, but the smaller pockets of rejection of mask-wearing and physical distancing measures also serve as a warning. We can either embrace flexibility and change or have change forced upon us.
Futuristic dystopian fiction allows us to examine the problems of our current world and imagine how things might get worse in order to find ways to make things better. Watershed sets the personal struggles of the Van Bruggen family in a political and environmental climate that is set in the future but still familiar to the contemporary reader. Though it lacks the fantastical sci-fi and technological elements of traditional dystopian fiction, the novel will appeal to readers who seek to explore the imaginative boundaries of the climate crisis and who enjoy approaching such stories through the lens of personal tragedies and triumphs.