Author addresses rural decline in new novel

Book takes place in a fictional Alberta town where people are experiencing drought, low prices and young people looking to leave

The fictional town of Majestic likely resembles many small prairie communities. They are grappling with population decline and changes in ways of life.

Author Audrey J. Whitson touches on these themes in her new book, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning, in which Majestic is experiencing drought, low commodity prices and young people looking for a way out.

“It’s an elegy for a passing time and a passing sense of community,” said Whitson, who recently read an excerpt of her book during a reading series event in Edmonton.

Ideas for Whitson’s book stemmed from the BSE crisis.

She said it hit in the middle of a seven-year drought, causing people who were already struggling to go under.

There were mental health costs associated with those challenging times, she said. People died by suicide and youth felt disaffected, turning to drugs and alcohol.

“There is hopelessness at times in that way of life,” Whitson said. “I wanted to lift up what that vision was and maybe, at least, honour it.”

The story of Majestic, which is set in Alberta, circles around the death of the town’s water witcher, Annie.

Annie is struck by lightning while divining water for a well. Following her death, stories of her past, as well as Majestic’s, slowly emerge.

For instance, the townspeople learn that Annie attended the provincial training school for mental defectives. The school used to exist in real life in Red Deer.

Whitson said she was always fascinated by water witching.

While growing up in the Busby, Alta., area, her family had a water witcher. He helped locate groundwater sources for people in the community.

“They are different and outside the conventional. It’s an ancient remnant of an old tradition,” Whitson said. “I found it fascinating. I wanted to learn more about that through this character.”

She said when people read the book, she hopes they can get a sense of what farming communities are really like.

It isn’t an idyllic, picturesque place with green rolling hills, she said. It’s where real blood, sweat and tears are shed.

“There are the best people, there are sometimes the saddest people and also sometimes the worst people,” Whitson said. “There are all kinds of humanity in a community.”

While growing up on a farm, Whitson said she came across so many kinds of people. She wanted to convey that rural communities are infinitely complex.

“I think Majestic could be any kind of small town,” she said. “They have characters, histories and oddities. It’s not all a straight line.”

The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning can be purchased online at www.amazon.ca, or at McNally Robinson.

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