It is 2058, and the glaciers are gone. A catastrophic drought has hit the prairies. Willa Van Bruggen is desperately trying to keep her family goat farm afloat, hoping against hope that the new water pipeline arrives before the bill collectors do. Willa’s son, Daniel, goes to work for the pipeline corporation instead of returning to help with the family business. When Daniel reveals long-concealed secrets about his grandfather’s death, Willa’s world truly shatters. She’s losing everything she values most: her farm, her son, her understanding of the past—and even her grip on reality itself. Vividly illustrating the human cost of climate change, Watershed is a page-turner of a novel about forgiveness, adaptation, and family bonds.
As Daniel spoke, Willa’s mind drifted back to a time when she and young Daniel crept into the loft of the hay barn to check out a new litter of kittens. She’d marvelled at how gently his little fingers stroked their silky fur. But he was strong willed, too—always arguing that he was ready to take on the next big farm job. Back then, she couldn’t imagine he’d ever leave.
He told her the job with Crystel would be a dream come true.
Smile, Willa commanded herself. Congratulate him. But the muscles around her mouth refused to budge.
The phone screen relayed the hopeful twitch of his eyebrows. “Aren’t you happy for me?” he asked. “I can finally start to tackle my debt.”
“Of course I’m happy,” she said, the words like a mouthful of sand.READ MORE
Daniel ran a hand across the top of his head and let it nest in his thick hair, as yellow as ripe wheat. His blue eyes shone. “My master’s is paying off. And I’ve made great contacts. No one is hiring, but my friend, Percy Dickenson, got me this interview. Brilliant guy. Double majored in political science and hydrogeology. Now he’s a bigshot in the provincial water ministry.”
“I’m glad you can get on top of your debt.” Her tiny image in the corner of the screen looked glad, didn’t it? “I just wish you were coming home.”COLLAPSE
Ian Colford of the Miramichi Reader wrote:
"Life-on-the-farm tale subverts clichés to create a terrifying and believable 'cli-fi' novel.
Watershed, the debut novel from Calgary writer Doreen Vanderstoop, begins in mid-disaster. It’s 2058 and, after the 'deluge decade' of the 2020s, during which the glaciers melted and sea levels rose, Alberta is locked in a crippling drought.
The novel is an example of the fledgling climate change fiction genre (cli-fi), and explores the effects of environmental collapse on the people and communities of western Canada. It’s a new dust bowl, with no end in sight, and complicating factors such as Valley Fever, an airborne fungal disease, which has 'migrated north from Arizona', with catastrophic effect.
The people of Southern Alberta are waiting with bated breath for the arrival of a pipeline, transporting desalinated water from the Pacific, while a terrorist group, the Northern Water Alliance, seeks to halt its progress, concerned that the pipeline will deprive Northern Alberta of its share.
Against this backdrop, Willa Van Bruggen is struggling to keep herself, her family, and her farm alive.
Willa has spent her entire life on the family farm, first with her father, now with her husband Calvin. Her mother and younger sister decamped to Calgary, unsuited to farm life, and now her son Daniel isn’t coming home after completing his education, instead taking a job with Crystel Canada, the crown corporation tasked with water distribution. The farm is barely surviving, despite having changed from beef to goats when water began to grow scarce, and debt is choking them. Worse, Willa has begun having hallucinations, terrifying visions of an armoured tank tearing through the farm’s fence, or of a snake winding around her teacup (for starters).
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. When Daniel’s new employer tasks him with serving on a series of town meetings — to win over pipeline doubters in the south — Vanderstoop is able to convincingly evoke small-town mistrust and wariness, the caution of those pushed to their extremes.
While “Watershed” wobbles occasionally — the early stages of the book are exposition-heavy (as one might expect from such a detailed vision of the future), the dialogue slips into staginess and speechifying a bit too often, and developments late in the book, and their resolutions, may challenge the suspension of disbelief — one can easily accept these as the signs of a debut novelist, especially since the novel as a whole is powerful and thought-provoking.
The book is based on a powerful balancing act, embracing CanLit clichés — struggling to save the family farm, the wayward son — while simultaneously subverting them in light of environmental devastation, a world where even the sky has changed, to a “beautiful, terrible, celestial raspberry coloured by dust and by smoke drifting in from forest fires in Northern Washington State and British Columbia.”
Vanderstoop’s dystopia is terrifyingly realistic (and, some would say, inevitable), while the respective journeys of Willa and the members of her family ring emotionally true, and will feel familiar to most readers."
"In her debut novel, Watershed, Doreen Vanderstoop envisions a future in which water, a life-giving resource that we take for granted, is not easily obtainable. Indeed, in Alberta in the year 2058, water is being rationed and the government’s scheme for water distribution to the province’s parched southern region is a subject of debate and controversy and even sparks a violent response from a terrorist group determined to preserve Northern Alberta’s water supply.
Vanderstoop’s dystopian future is alarming but similar to the present day in which violent conflict can erupt over scarce natural resources.
The main action of Watershed centres on the Van Bruggen goat farm, located near the southern town of Fort MacLeod. Willa Van Bruggen inherited the farm from her father and feels a primal connection to the land that is shared by her husband Calvin. But this is not the case for their son Daniel, who left the farm to study and as the novel begins has accepted a position as hydrologist with a crown corporation called Crystel. Crystel has been contracted to adapt the pipelines left over from the days of big oil for the purpose of moving water, and also to extend the lines south. But the project is plagued by a lack of trust. People in the north suspect the water distribution scheme is a ruse, and that Crystel’s real objective is to push the pipeline across the US border and sell water to thirsty Americans at enormous profit, leaving the northern supplies depleted.
Vanderstoop’s dystopian future is alarming but similar to the present day in which violent conflict can erupt over scarce natural resources. Thankfully, she doesn’t focus solely on the politics.
Willa and Calvin’s dedication to the farm and their struggle to keep it going against mounting odds is the novel’s primary focus, though most readers will recognize early on that it’s a losing proposition. Willa Van Bruggen’s stubborn commitment to the farming life, which is all she knows, seems misguided—driven more by nostalgia than practical considerations—but she remains a character for whom the reader feels great empathy as, in addition to the financial squeeze, she faces a serious health issue, a rift in her relationship with Daniel, and the death of a close friend.
In the end, Watershed is a suspenseful, thought-provoking, layered and emotionally potent novel informed by science and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. But it is also written with the human element front and centre, which encourages us to reflect upon the value of honest human striving, knowing when to pack it in, and caring for one another and the things that matter most.
In addition, and perhaps most indelibly, Doreen Vanderstoop builds her successful first novel around a vision of the future that is frightening and disturbingly plausible."