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Gail Anderson-Dargatz captures spirit of the Shuswap in new novel

Two-time Giller Prize shortlisted novelist Gail Anderson-Dargatz releases new novel The Spawning Grounds with a reading in Vernon.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz is at the Vernon library Sept. 20 to read from her new novel The Spawning Grounds.

As a former community newspaper journalist turned two-time Giller Prize shortlisted novelist,  Gail Anderson-Dargatz has paid close attention to the land where she grew up.

Once a reporter for The Salmon Arm Observer, Anderson-Dargatz was raised in the Shuswap community of Gleneden, now a rural suburb of Salmon Arm, and she has set some of her novels, including best seller The Cure for Death by Lightning, in the region.

However, as a writer of fiction, she is not restrained by place.

Anderson-Dargatz’s new book, The Spawning Grounds, to be launched at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library Sept. 20, could be situated in any rural community in Canada

It’s set on a salmon bearing river, where on one side is a ranch once owned by European settlers who came to the region during the gold rush, and the other is an indigenous community that relies on natural resources.

“I used this area because it was familiar,” said Anderson-Dargatz, calling from her current home in Sorrento. “I grew up swimming in the Salmon River, which probably was not a good idea. I’ve also spent many summers on Manitoulin Island (on Ontario’s Lake Huron), which also has salmon bearing streams around native communities.”

Anderson-Dargatz says those looking for familiar Shuswap locations, or particular pathways, in the novel should give up trying.

“I messed with the landscape. I wanted it to fit the story without having to worry about it being exact. Originally I had a road, that in real life if you drove it, you would drive right into the lake, but I stayed true to the spirit of the landscape, with the misty October mornings and blue Shuswap hills,” she said.

The Spawning Grounds follows a teenage girl named Hannah, who with her brother, Brandon,  are being raised by their grandfather on the homestead by the river once owned by their gold searching ancestors.

Concerned that the salmon are not able to reach their spawning grounds because of the strained condition of the river –the flow choked by various environmental impacts– Hannah attempts to move the fish herself. Meanwhile,  her friend, Alex, who lives on the other side of the river, is leading a native protest against a development further threatening the waterway.

When a drowning nearly claims the lives of Hannah’s grandfather and brother, their world is thrown into chaos.

“Hannah is a determined kid and also has to take on the mantle of being a parent to her younger brother,” said Anderson-Dargatz. “Brandon is the manifest of the landscape around him. He becomes a real character in this novel and embodies the spirit of the landscape coming to life. The idea comes from the boundaries between us and the natural world. Now it’s about using the environment to our own ends, which is very different from First Nation values.”

Anderson-Dargatz uses the river as the focal point to examine issues between First Nation and settler communities.

While researching her book, she examined the geographical location of the Shuswap and surrounding communities with the help of her husband, who is a map maker and teaches GIS  (Geographic Information Systems), and she noticed how rivers, streams and other bodies of water played a big part in creating these borders.

“There’s always been a boundary line. If you look at news stories, you see much more distance between the First Nation and settler communities, but in rural areas you see more how the communities are interlinked through geography and family ties. We need to be talking more about that.

“It’s a writer’s job to step in other’s shoes. That goes with other genders, age groups and cultures.”

Gail Anderson-Dargatz launches her book in the meeting room on the main floor of the Vernon library. Tuesday, Sept. 20. The launch includes a reading by the author followed by a book-signing session. It is free and open to all.