Most of us have lived in or driven through one: rural municipalities like Juliet, Saskatchewan, the fictional town of eleven hundred people that is the setting for Juliet in August. Canadian author Dianne Warren takes us behind the fašade of small town life and into the muck of the residents' reality. Their lives intertwine and intersect over the course of twenty-four hours beginning with what turns out to be, one sleepless night for many.
At surface level, it seems to be a night and day like any other, but we're shown the depths of raw, real, and bittersweet emotion in people dealing with financial hardship, loneliness, and disappointment, all while going about their day-to-day business.
These are some of richest, most deeply-developed characters I've encountered in a book. Their stories are tragic and relatable, their lives tinged with secrets and fear. Their relationships are tenuous yet solid, in the way relationships are for people whose families have lived alongside one another for decades.
There is Lee, who, as an infant, was found in a basket on the porch of his recently-deceased adoptive parents. Lee now lives alone on the family farm and is struggling to come to terms with his unknown past and his present existence as sole beneficiary of his adoptive parent. He goes on an unexpected long distance horse ride that takes him far in terms of physical distance and emotional resolution.
Blaine and Vicki Dolson, a down-on-their-luck family with six rowdy children, are coping with the heartbreak of seeing their family farm slip away from them bit by bit. Their tale is one of quiet desperation, a wife's unconscious rejection of her role, and a teenager on the cusp of adolescence wondering about his own future.
Norval, the town banker and his wife Lila, for whom outward appearances are of utmost importance, are dealing with the unexpected pregnancy and upcoming nuptials of their pregnant teenage daughter. At the same time Norval struggles with a job where he must foreclose on family farms that have been passed down through generations.
Willard Shoenfeld, owner of the drive-in movie theatre, and one-time unlikely owner of a camel named Antoinette, fears that his brother's widowed wife is planning on moving out of the house they've shared together since his brother's death. He's not sure why the thought of her leaving bothers him so much.
These are just a few of the people I got to know and care about as I read this book. There are others: from larger-than-life players to minor characters who dance around the periphery but whose personalities are no less richly represented.
The town itself with its prairie backdrop, nearby sand dunes with shifting landscape mirroring storyline changes, and coulees that keep secrets, are characters in and of themselves.
Juliet in August, under the name Cool Water, was the 2010 winner of the Governor General's award for fiction in Canada. It is easily the most exquisite character-driven book I've read in recent memory.
Dianne Warren is the author of three previous collections of short stories. This is her first novel. It won the 2010 Governor General's Award for fiction, on of Canada's most prestigious literary prizes (published under the title Cool Water). Warren lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. Visit her website.
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