Bookworm: Water Witches by Chris Bohjalian

Description from Better World Books:

Vermont is drying up. The normally lush, green countryside is in the grip of the worst drought in years: stunted cornstalks rasp in the hot July breeze, parched vegetable gardens wither and die, the Chittenden River shrinks to a trickle, and the drilling trucks are booked solid as one by one the wells give out. Patience Avery, known nationwide as a gifted “water witch”, is having a busy summer, too. Using the tools of the dowser’s trade – divining sticks, metal rods, bobbers, and pendulums – she can locate, among other things, aquifers deep within the earth. In the midst of this crisis, Scottie Winston lobbies for permits to expand Powder Peak, a local ski area that’s his law firm’s principal client. As part of the expansion, the resort seeks to draw water for snow-making from the beleaguered Chittenden, despite opposition from environmentalists who fear that the already weakened river will be damaged beyond repair.

Water Witches is a classic Liberals vs. Conservatives / Big Business vs. Self-Employed & Unemployed, with a small Vermont town and its big Vermont ski-slope as the battleground. Scottie Winston is an interesting main character –  he’s a lobbyist for Powder Peak, but also married into a family of extremely powerful dowsers, including his abrasive sister-in-law Patience, who leads the opposition to the ski slope’s plans to tap the local river for snow-making purposes. A series of events prompts Scottie to start reevaluating his line of work: His daughter’s burgeoning dowsing talent, the community’s growing unease over a drought that seems never-ending, and a chance sighting of a family of catamounts on a forested peak that will soon be cleared for a new ski trail by the very people who pay his salary. The characters on both sides were realistic, each with their own set of values and beliefs, and the setting reminded me of the town where I grew up. While the plot was predictable in some ways, it surprised me in others, and I felt that Scottie’s moral 180 was admirable and very human.

I finished this book a couple of months ago, but as the grass on my lawn progressively becomes a brittle, yellowed hay-field, I’m reminded of the sense of impending doom in Water Witches as the Vermont drought grew steadily worse. This dry heat is a stark contrast to last year’s watery monsoon of a summer. I’m trying not to get too caught up in superstition or political discussions, but at this point you’d have to have your head buried in the sand (or elsewhere…) to not believe in climate change. It will be interesting to see what sort of winter is in store for us, and if this extreme weather manages to establish a cyclical pattern. All I know is that I need to start buildin’ that storm shelter, or stop reading books that only add to my apocalyptic paranoia.

Book cover from Better World Books


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