I am always amazed at how books choose me, sometimes. Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize-winning The Sentimentalists jumped out from a Halifax Central Library shelf after a stolen hour there refereeing a journal manuscript (I rejected it). The cover wasn’t particularly promising, but I flipped it and the second paragraph of the blurb on the back read, “He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a manmade lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town–and the home where Henry was raised.” I took it home.
I have read a few other books about dam-related inundation, starting with Flood (1963), by Robert Penn Warren. My torn 1964 copy was picked up at Berkelouw’s Book Barn a decade ago and pleasingly includes cancelled stamps inside the cover from the American Merchant Marine Library Association (Boston, MASS) and the Ship’s Company Library, HMAS Brisbane. I think that book started a renaissance in my reflection on the place where I grew up, on to today’s scholarly interest, but I have noted since then the use made of impending or past dam impoundment in pop culture, for dynamic tension (consider the movie Deliverance, for instance) or as shorthand for suppressed history, injustice and loss of place. There is a cultural studies thesis in this somewhere.
I’ll leave you with a sample of the narrator’s voice in The Sentimentalists, in a place where it startlingly echoes my own experience:
We must have known, and then ignored for lack of real evidence, that Henry, and a few others that we saw regularly around the lake, could still remember that original town. That they perhaps even felt that it was to the old rather than the new that they more fully belonged. But because they hardly spoke of it, they did not interrupt our dreaming, and perhaps were even instrumental in leading me, at that age, to the false presumption that a thing could, quite simply, be forgot. (p. 37)