October 19, 2012

The Town That Drowned

by Riel Nason
Goose Lane Editions
273 pp.
Ages 12+

Although drowning is typically associated with water, it is also used to indicate being overwhelmed by work, debt, sorrow - all stimuli that can defeat. While the cover of Riel Nason's The Town That Drowned suggests that water is the force that engulfs the young girl, other powers are at work in this book.  Thankfully, as her vivid blue eyes looking upward suggest, there is also the brightness of hope in The Town That Drowned.

In Haventon, New Brunswick, the Saint John River is a defining feature of the community, especially for the narrator, fourteen-year-old Ruby.  For the past several years, Ruby has accompanied her nine-year-old brother Percy to his weekly message-in-a-bottle launch from the Hackshaw Bridge.  The whole family works hard to accommodate Percy's unusual needs and behaviours but Ruby plays a significant role especially in protecting her hypersensitive brother from the taunts of other children.  Unfortunately, ever since last winter when Ruby fell through the ice at a skating party and experienced a vision of the town underwater, Ruby herself has become a victim of teasing. 

When survey stakes start showing up in the community and the premier of the province announces the building of a new hydroelectric dam, the people of Haventon become enmeshed in discussions and speculation about the plans to expropriate lands and flood Haventon.  Eventually a map is posted marking lands to be flooded, homes to be moved, and the location of the new town.

Everyone is deeply affected, but especially those around Ruby.  Mr. Cole, the elderly man for whom Ruby does occasional housekeeping, seems to spend much time reminiscing and gifting Ruby and her family with his late wife's jewelry and books while still welcoming his lazy and disreputable great nephew, Tommy, into his large home.  Ruby's father, a civil servant in Fredericton, is accused by Tommy and the local drunkard, Alton Crouse, of prior knowledge of the dam project, especially after it is determined that Ruby's home may be saved.  Her mother stops painting, Percy stops talking and her mother's best friend, Miss Stairs, visits almost daily for emotional support and gossip.  Finally, Ruby's life takes a new direction with the attentions of Troy Rutherford, the son of an antique dealer from Ontario who comes looking to purchase items being sold by moving residents.  As Ruby's mother suggests,
"Unexpected problems bring unexpected results. " (pg. 223)
Within the pool of hardships and changes experienced by the people in The Town That Drowned, there is a coming-of-age story.  While Ruby may have seen herself as vulnerable to the ridicule of her peers, Riel Nason has created a strong and wise young teen who watches and analyzes her life and those of people around her with great clarity and depth.  But, the announcement about the building of the dam and the subsequent events bring new lens through which Ruby can see everyone, including herself, with a new distinctness.
"I think I'm fine and it's just the people in this place that distort me, like a reflection in the river, altering my image." (pg. 237)
Winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize for Europe and the Americas and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award (Atlantic Book Awards), and nominated for the Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Book of the Year and the 2013 Red Maple Award of the Ontario Library Association, The Town that Drowned has been recognized nationally and internationally as a compelling read about much more than just a town.  Riel Nason has created a community of young and old, wise and irresponsible, and honest and secretive that could be the essence of any Canadian small town.  It was a privilege to visit this one.

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