The Spawning Grounds
By Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Knopf Canada, 320 pp, hardcover
With her long-awaited new novel The Spawning Grounds, writer and teacher Gail Anderson-Dargatz returns to her beloved Shuswap. It’s a region that the author has, over her body of work, brought to vivid, magical life, similar to Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Michael Crummey’s Newfoundland outports in Galore and Sweetland.
Those might seem like outsize comparisons, but Anderson-Dargatz has earned the praise, with novels like The Cure for Death by Lightning and A Recipe for Bees receiving critical acclaim, prize recognition, and international attention. Anderson-Dargatz has set the bar dauntingly high for every new work; it’s a measure that The Spawning Grounds more than meets.
The titular spawning grounds are a section of Lightning River, settled for over 150 years on one bank by ranching family the Robertsons, and on the other, for much longer, by a small Shuswap community. As the novel opens, a schism has arisen with the river at its centre: a Shuswap grave has been disturbed, and the residents establish a blockade against the developers, who are supported by Stew Robertson, the family patriarch.
When Stew and his grandson Brandon nearly drown in the river—where swimming has been explicitly warned against by the Shuswap—the novel enters a magical realm, with a “water mystery” taking form against the changing of the world, with potentially cataclysmic effect. Thrown into the middle are Brandon’s older sister Hannah, the novel’s focal character, a university student in an environmental studies program, and Alex, great-grandson of a Shuswap elder, whose knowledge of the ancient stories and traditional lore may prove the key for understanding the mythic forces arrayed against them.
The Spawning Grounds is a powerful, complex mélange of story forms and approaches, including magic realism, domestic drama, historical fiction, and stories about coming of age and coming to the end of life, leavened with elements of romance and considerable humour and understanding. Anderson-Dargatz writes with a direct, often subversive appeal to narrative, powerful storytelling, and skilfully drawn characters carrying complex social, political, cultural, and spiritual conflicts with an unobtrusive ease.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz appears on October 20, 21, and 22 at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest. Check out writersfest.bc.ca/ for details.