One of the problems that comes with working in a library is that your “to-read” list is always expanding and sometimes it takes a while for a gem to make it to the top of the pile, but the newest novel by award winner Gail Anderson-Dargatz, “The Spawning Grounds” was worth the wait. Set in the Thompson-Shuswap region of British Columbia, the story combines many elements including family dynamics, cultural history, ancient legend, environmental destruction and loss.
The Robertson family lives on one side of the river, while on the other side is the Shuswap community. Each has a complicated history with the river and with each other, so as the novel opens and the river that stands between them is dying, both sides are spurred to action. The Lightning River is an important spawning ground to the salmon, so young Hannah Robertson joins in the rescue mission of carrying the exhausted salmon upstream. On one occasion, when her younger brother Brandon is trying to help as well, he falls into the river and is nearly drown. The incident changes Brandon emotionally and the white community believes that he is suffering from a mental illness. Hannah’s best friend, Alex, a member of the Shuswap community believes that Brandon is now cursed by a river ghost and that only by solving why the ghost is possessing him can either Brandon or the river be saved.
Anderson-Dargatz has used magical-realism to illustrate that how we approach any situation is based on our own beliefs and that reality is simply a reflection of what we expect to find. The river, itself, changes to show the emotional influences of those who live on it’s banks. The novel is beautifully descriptive which gives the reader both a sense of place and the underlying spirit that inhabits the natural world.