Watershed by Doreen Vanderstoop

It is 2058 and the glaciers are gone. A catastrophic drought has hit the prairies.” Watershed casts us into the near future, just far enough that the world looks familiar in many ways despite the fact that some parts of North America are flooded while others are experiencing severe drought. This is the scariest kind of speculative fiction; the kind that is entirely plausible.

Willa is trying desperately to save her farm; the one handed down to her from her father and grandfather, the one she chose to stay on when her mother and younger sister left. But each time the water truck comes to deliver their water might be the last.

Her Opa and Oma would be shocked by the view of foothills surrounded by sand dunes. A vast landscape punctured by dead trees. Beyond the foothills, the jagged lead line of the Rocky Mountains no longer shouldered snow. She could see the front ranges tonight, the peaks visible for a change as a rare light breeze from the east thinned out the dust and smoke.

Willa and Calvin have done everything they can to hold onto their home and livelihood; they’ve converted to wind and solar power, installed a composting toilet and grey-water filtration system, dug a hole for their cistern, and switched out their cattle for goats.

She had grown tired of the phrase ‘tough times.’ She thought about the utter inadequacies of language in the face of catastrophe.

In addition to the water scarcity is the fear of contracting Valley Fever, which has been blowing around with the dust. “Valley Fever’s a bugger. Felt like I had the flu for four months. Didn’t want to wear the mask before, but I sure as hell wear it now.” When Willa starts suffering from “strange visions”, she wonders if it’s a symptom of the fever, but is reluctant to mention it to anyone.

These are crazy times, so if you’re losing it, you fit right in.

As it is now, the water brought to their farm near Fort MacLeod comes as far as Red Deer via the pipeline–which was cleared of natural gas–and desalinated at a plant in Bruderheim, Alberta. Southern Albertans are waiting on bated breath for the extension of the pipeline to Calgary before they have to give up their homes.

Calgary is where Willa’s son Daniel has been going to school. Every Calgarian is allocated 140 litres of water per week, at a cost of $364 per person.

As Dan strode up the mall, he sidestepped islands of broken window glass and homeless people strewed along the sidewalk like monuments to a failed society. most of the mendicants had signs propped beside them begging for money and bottled water.

Most elderly Calgarians spent their days shut up inside their homes, waiting. Waiting for the Bow and Elbow Rivers to refill. Waiting for the streets to be safe again. Waiting for their taps to run.

Watershed is a novel about the climate crisis, but it’s also the story of a family in crisis; Willa grieves for her father, her farm as she knew it, her sense of security, and the loss of her son to the city. Daniel has been carrying around a secret for far too long, and when he finally opens up to his mother she closes him off. How will they reconcile to this new world and this new information about the past? “Vividly illustrating the human cost of climate change, Watershed is a page-turner of a novel about forgiveness, adaptation, and family bonds.

The Marshall Islands had been swallowed by the Pacific Ocean a year ago. Waterfronts in cities like Victoria, New York, and Los Angeles had been swamped by seawater. A seven-meter-high wall kept Lake Ontario from drowning Toronto. In Alberta, the glaciers were mostly gone. Calgary had built a wall, too, to keep the Elbow and Bow Rivers out of downtown. Everyone knew global warming was real, but no one knew what to do about it except to blame everyone else.

She eyed the willows by the river. Swaying wildly in the wind, they looked like they were trying to lift up their roots and run away as water crept further and further up their trunks. They must be furious at the river, she thought.

Further Reading:

The Star: “Vanderstoop skilfully balances the political and social aspects of the novel with the personal and familial, creating a vivid portrait of lives eking out an existence against all odds, of people coming to terms with both the past and the unimaginable future.

Q&A with Victoria Festival of Authors: Find out how Margaret Atwood helped motivate Doreen Vanderstoop to finish her novel!

Thank you to Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book!

13 thoughts on “Watershed by Doreen Vanderstoop

  1. Karissa says:

    These are the futuristic novels that scare me the most – because they are so plausible. And somehow when they’re set in familiar places, that’s even more frightening.

  2. wadholloway says:

    It’s hard to imagine farm country so far north being so dry. Novels like this are an important first step in considering the big issues. I can imagine water being piped everywhere from coastal desalination plants, it already is in Western Australia. But I’m not sure anyone yet is thinking about where all that salt is going to go, just as 150 years ago we didn’t care about all the CO2 we were releasing.

  3. annelogan17 says:

    Oh man, I really need to read this.Yet another example of climate fiction, and you are so right Naomi, I find this kind of speculative fiction the scariest because it seems so real! I was just doing the math in my head, and my kids would be a bit older than me when this book takes place-yikes!!!!

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I know I’ve already said this to you, but this book scared the bejeebies out of me! It’s very well done.

    It also played with my expectations of story, in that it remained focussed more on the characters than the societal change, even though one could tell their story without casting the light further so that we could see more of their world. It was super satisfying that way.

    • Naomi says:

      I loved that, too – the cli-fic stuff was in the background while the story carried out in the foreground. It’s interesting how the core issues remain the same – a sense of belonging, connection to land, familial bonds…

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