Cool Water

Take a drink of Cool Water with Dianne Warren’s wonderful book set in the sand dunes of Southern Saskatchewan. Her novel, in the form of interconnected stories, paints a complex picture of a place in time and the people who live there.

There are so many things I loved about this book, but one thing that intrigued me (and took me back to university days) was that the structure, despite so many story lines, seemed to conform to the “three unities” of classic drama, as set out by Aristotle, and further refined by 17th century French playwrights. The unities of action, time and place stipulate that the story take place roughly within a 24-hour time period, that it all happen in one location, and that the action be limited to one main idea with few subplots. Although Warren’s book is nothing like what one would associate with classical theatre, it does in fact fit these criteria fairly well.

The unity of time criterion is met, as the events unfold during the course of one day. Lee Torgenson awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of a horse galloping. He ignores this at first, since he is often plagued by phantom hoofbeats, but eventually gets up to discover a real horse outside. The horse does not protest when Lee saddles him, and so, with the light of the moon to guide them, they begin their 24-hour adventure together.

A long-distance horse race that took place many years earlier is described in the prologue. Starting at the buffalo rubbing stone just to the north of town, two cowboys outlined a 100-mile perimeter around the local hills and sand dunes. When Lee sets out on horseback, he inadvertently traces the same path as the cowboys. This historic path sets the parameters for the unity of place: Juliet, Saskatchewan and the Little Snake Hills.

Although Lee’s adventure starts the action, and literally draws a boundary around the story, there are many other tales that unfold. Aristotle thought that unity of action was the most important of the three, and that there must be only one main story or plot. Any other action should contribute to that plot in a structured, cohesive way, so that “…the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.” [1]

In this case, the “plot” is to show the interconnectedness of the various people in the book and Warren does this beautifully. Thus, Cool Water fulfills the unity of action as well. Each of the stories is connected in some way to one or another and does “make [a] visible difference.” As Lee makes his way around the historic path, he sees or visits different farms and homesteads and we get a glimpse of the people who live there and how their lives crisscross and intertwine. We witness interactions between a cowboy and a rebellious teenager, a bank manager and a father of a family at the end of his rope. We see a father communicating with his son, and an older couple trying to make a connection with each other. We see one woman who’s lost a horse and another who is afraid she’s lost a husband. Innocent actions, seemingly isolated, have repercussions later, so that leaving a gate open, or writing down a phone number, can have potentially disastrous consequences.

This is a very satisfying book. Warren describes her complex, appealing characters in a very warm-hearted, straightforward manner. Through them, she reminds us that we are all connected. We live our lives and each of us has our own story but we are inextricably linked to others, no matter how ephemerally and whether or not we are aware of that connection and its possible effect. Not a new idea perhaps, but somehow comforting nonetheless, and Warren’s version of it is a pure pleasure to read.

1-Aristotle, Poetics, VIII


  1. Jeanne, what a wonderful review. It's been a while since I read Cool Water but your review took me right back there (to have a drink and hum to myself, "Cool, cool, water..."). Thanks.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the review Lynda. Really loved this book. One of my favourites in a long time.