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Treading Water

by Anne DeGrace

Historical fiction is tricky. Successful books in the genre blend equal amounts of fact with fiction, while others provide just enough background to set the scene and provide context. Ultimately, it is the reader who decides how much truth is enough. Treading Water, B.C. journalist and short-story author Anne DeGrace’s debut novel, may come up just a titch short in the fact department for most.

Set in the fictional town of Bear Creek, B.C., the novel is based on events in the real town of Renata, one of many small villages on the shores of Lower Arrow Lake to end up underwater after the U.S. and Canadian governments signed the Columbia River Treaty in 1964. To make way for a new reservoir, residents of Renata were forced to sell their land, much of which included orchards and farms that had been passed down through generations from the earliest settlers – trappers and Mennonite families drawn from the Prairies – in the early 1900s.

It is with these settlers that DeGrace begins, and with the last stalwarts to leave in 1967 that she ends. What falls in between is a chronological journey through 12 stories that jump from character to character, often resulting in a confusing game for the reader of who begat whom and what year is it again?

Despite this problem, the novel is an enjoyable read. DeGrace’s characters are compelling – funny, smart, and true to life in their emotions and dialogue. She also deftly crafts the area’s physical elements, creating vivid images of the rich B.C. landscape.

The problems arise with the facts under the fiction. Perhaps drifting too far from her journalistic roots, DeGrace omits much of the backstory needed to make the eventual upheaval of the characters from their picturesque town as heart-wrenching as it should be. Because of this, the novel doesn’t completely succeed if judged on its apparent intentions as a glimpse into a small part of B.C.’s past. However, if taken at face value as an engaging, character-driven story that just happens to be set against a background of true events, Treading Water stays nicely afloat.