Author will make you care about Juliet
“Juiiet in August,” by Dianne Warren. Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam. 2012. 336 pp. $25.95.
By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
“Juliet in August,” Canadian author Dianne Warren’s first novel to be published in the United States, is set in Saskatchewan, in the small town of Juliet. For all you Americans who don’t know geography, Saskatchewan is the Midwest, like our Dakotas and Wyoming; for the record before you run to the atlas, Juliet is a fictional town. Warren proves she is from the area itself, and the novel affirms its location, because she uses the expression “well, then” several times in the novel. There is no better affirmation of a Midwestern novel than that.
Historically, in the days when cowboys rode horses and cows roamed the range, two cowboys working for the Perry Land and Cattle Company engaged in a 100-mile horse race that began and ended outside of the small town of Juliet. The young upstart Ivan Dodge won the race and the old hand Henry Merchant, his horse lamed, walked in hours later, minus his pocket watch, which had cost him a week’s pay. He was never seen in those parts again.
More recently, an Arabian horse has escaped from its trailer while parked overnight at a campground and wandered into Lee Torgeson’s farmyard. There has not been a horse on the Torgeson farm for many years, but Lee hunts down an old saddle and tackle in the barn and decides to take this wandering horse for a night ride. From this point on, we will follow Lee Torgeson on his ride, but, we will also look backward on his history and the history of the Torgeson place, and we will do this with other chapters and subchapters interwoven, each exploring the lives and fates of other characters from the town and surroundings of Juliet, Saskatchewan.
There is the couple that runs the local drive-in theater, one of the few left anywhere. Well, sort of a couple, because Willard and Marian aren’t married, and they don’t even really live together though they occupy the same house. Marian used to be married to Willard’s brother Ed, who up and died several years ago. The “couple” is in a stalemate, for Willard is expecting Marian to up and leave any day now, though he would rather she didn’t, and Marian is quite content and wouldn’t mind being “with” Willard, but has trouble doing much to advance that thought beyond standing outside his bedroom door at night.
Down the road from Willard and Marian live the Dolsons, being Blaine, Vickie and their six children. What used to be their acreage has shrunk considerably, and what they have left is on the verge of belonging to the bank. Blaine knows this is his fault entirely, but Vickie doesn’t help a lot as she is somewhat directionless and has a certain way with money when it comes to financial priorities.
Norval Birch is the bane of the Dolsons and some of the others in and about town too; Norval is the local banker. Because of this, Norval knows that he is not particularly liked, though he also knows that the situation that Blaine has himself in is not Blaine’s fault; it is his own. Further, Norval does not do a particularly good job of even pleasing his wife Lila, especially now that the family is rushing toward the wedding of their daughter, Rachelle, who has found herself in one of those “oops” situations. And then, there is Norval’s health.
Finally, there is Hank and Joni. Joni runs the diner in town, while Hank keeps the farm going, even though he lost his best hand when Joni went into business in town. Hank had his faults when he was younger, riding the rodeos and chasing skirts, but he’s calmed down now and all looks well for the future. Yet, sometimes, when one tries to help another person out, things can backfire.
“Juliet in August” is going to follow all of these characters back and forth through their lives and actions for a bit, and interweave them with each other as happens in a town with a population of slightly more than 1,000. And all the while, Lee Torgeson is going to be riding that horse. Lee is going to ride that horse for hours and hours, across the desert and over the grazing lands, by people’s farms and ranches, by the old Catholic church, by old watering holes. Lee Torgeson is going to ride that horse, that Arabian, 100 miles before he ends up back in Juliet. He might even find a treasure along the way.
Warren won the 2010 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction for “Juliet in August,” published in Canada under the title “Cool Water”; don’t be surprised if Warren wins additional awards in this country. This is American Midwestern fiction, and Warren easily holds her own against other authors from the area like Ivan Doig, Jim Harrison and Kent Haruf. Her characters are believable and interesting; you want to know what is going to happen to these people and you want to know how they got to where they are now. It doesn’t matter where you live, these people live around you; you see them on the street every day, but you never bothered to ask them what their stories were. Well, then, Warren is going to tell you. Enjoy.