I met Riel Nason briefly when we were both nominated for Atlantic Book Awards last year and have followed her on Facebook and Twitter with interest since then, but only just got around to reading her highly-acclaimed debut novel, The Town That Drowned. Set in 1960s New Brunswick in a small town that’s about to be resettled and flooded by the building of a new dam, this is a vivid, intimate novel that works equally well for adult and young-adult readers.
The main character, Ruby, deals with the usual stresses of being a teenager — she’s picked on by more popular girls, her best friend has moved away and Ruby feels like she’ll never have a friend in school again. On top of that, she has to contend with a little brother everyone recognizes as being weird — today he’d probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, or a combination of both, but in 1964 he’s just that weird kid whose quirks everyone has to work around and adapt to (or point at and mock, depending on how sensitive they are). Ruby’s adolescent struggles play out against a background of community upheaval: the announcement that the new dam will cause the Saint John River to rise, flooding many homes along the banks, has upset the comfortable balance of Ruby’s hometown as residents have to decide where to go and what to do when they are forced to leave their homes.
For a Newfoundlander like me reading this novel it was impossible not to think of the similar experiences of Newfoundlanders during the same era who were resettled from isolated communities — as in The Town That Drowned, a result of government decisions made with a view to the “big picture” and little regard for the impact on thousands of ordinary lives. Some people react with anger, others with despair; a few see an opportunity for a fresh start. Nason’s genius in this novel is not just to tell an important historical story that needed to be told but to find exactly the right perspective from which to tell it. For a girl of fourteen like Ruby, figuring out who you are and finding your place in the world around you is your most important job: doing that becomes far more complex when the world around you is shifting and even the adults don’t know where they belong anymore.
The Town That Drowned is a warm, intimate story in which every character feels as real as someone you might meet on the street. While I was reading it I felt completely immersed in Ruby’s world and was sorry when it ended. I passed the book on to my thirteen-year-old daughter; I’ll be interested to see if she enjoys it too.