CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 13. . . .December 2, 2016
Black Water Rising.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2016.
152 pp., trade pbk., $17.95.
Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.
Review by Rebecca King.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Stanton Frame sat up in bed.
Something had woken him. Maybe the lack of rain hammering at the window as it had through the last three days and nights, maybe his father talking on the phone downstairs. But there was something more, a sense of familiarity disturbed. As if the surroundings he’d lived in all his seventeen years were somehow in disequilibrium.
He glanced at his watch. It was 4:00 A.M. on Thursday.
He got up, padded to the window, and looked out at the meadow that extended to the river nearly one kilometre away. Blinked. Reached for his glasses and looked again. The river was gone and the meadow was rippling silver. It lapped at the foot of the oak tree where the swing he’d played on as a child still hung.
The shining meadow disappeared as scudding clouds obscured the moon. Stanton peered into the blackness. The moon reappeared. Now the rippling silver meadow had encircled the oak and was creeping toward the house. His father's voice grew louder. Stanton opened his door a few centimetres so he could see into the hallway downstairs where his father was pacing with the phone as he spoke.
“What the hell do you mean you haven't opened the dam?”
Stanton Frame is a high-school student in a small town that is economically dependant on TransNational Power Company which controls the water flow at the dam on the Black River, the river which flows through town. TransNational maintains the water levels higher than the previous owners of the historical dam, and their doing so has changed the ecology of a lake that is part of the headwaters. The town was flooded five years previously, and three days of heavy rains and rising water levels have the townspeople concerned that the town will once again be flooded if the gates aren’t opened.
The story depicts the conflict between the town residents and the power company, supported by the provincial government. Stanton’s father, Willis Frame, the engineer who manages the dam, wants to open the gates, but TransNational orders that the gates remain shut, claiming that their computer model shows that the danger has passed and that the water levels they maintain have no impact on the environment. The company also offers, out of the goodness of their hearts, $1000 to each household affected by flooding. The townspeople’s experience of the flood five years earlier indicates that this amount is a drop in the bucket of the cost of damages caused by flooding.
Many characters vocally oppose the power company’s decision to keep the gates closed. Stanton’s girlfriend, Jessica, who lives with her grandmother on the shores of the lake, has observed the consistent higher water levels of the lake and the damage to the natural environment they have caused. Jessica calls an organization of environmental activists from British Columbia, EcoAction, which sends in Brynne and Callie, a couple of professional protestors, who suggest blowing up the dam. Fred Shingles, a retired high school teacher, survivalist, and town crank, threatens to blow up the dam. Both Stanton’s parents suggest privately that they might blow up the dam. Stanton even looks up how to make a bomb on the activists’ website and purchases ingredients at the local hardware store. Numerous angry and threatening phone calls are received at the administration office at the dam.
The power company increases security at the dam site which has previously been open to the public. The provincial premier visits the town with a representative from the head office of the power company to soothe the fears of the townspeople. Partly due to the lead of the outside agitators from BC, the crowd waiting to see the premier becomes a mob that descends on the dam site. Physical violence ensues and results in injuries. The local police, led by Sergeant Ernie Munn, resolve the situation with an admirably measured response. The outside agitators return to their campsite, Stanton sees Jessica to the boat she uses to get home, his mom is called away to care for a sick aunt, others return to their homes or the emergency shelter, and Stanton and his dad settle into the motel for the night.
About 4 AM, there is an explosion. Someone has blown the gates on the dam. The flood waters escape down river, doing little damage. The outside demonstrators have decamped in the night, and Jessica’s grandmother reports her missing and her boat is found adrift and empty on the swirling waters. Sergeant Munn begins his inquiries into who has committed the crime and a search for a possibly drowned girl.
Robert Rayner has created a satisfying mystery with the pleasant addition of complex relationships and ideas. The characters, with few exceptions, are well-rounded, ethical, and likeable. While the main character is a teenaged boy, there are several strong and interesting women–Jessica, Stanton's girlfriend; her grandmother; the EcoAction protestors; and Tess, the teen who works at Black River Java. The plot is well-planned and executed. The revelation of the culprit can be traced back and confirmed by the events as they occurred. The facts were all available to the reader.
Stanton, the main character, is a likeable young man who is intelligent and hardworking. His relationship with his girlfriend, Jessica, is based on mutual interests and respect as well as an intelligently moderated physical attraction. She is well-known to and liked by his parents, and he is well-known and liked by her grandmother. He helps make preparations for the anticipated flood at her grandmother’s home and continues to help out after Jessica disappears. He admires Jessica’s devotion to her environmental interests, but he is surprised when she calls in the professional protestors. At first, he is shocked that she is not appalled by their tactics, but then he finds himself participating in physical violence at the protest to protect her. Later he looks up instructions and purchases materials for making a bomb, though he throws away his effort.
Supporting characters are also interesting. Stanton’ parents are conflicted about their response to the flood. Should his father follow the company line, or should he do what he feels is right and open the dam? To open the dam would cost him his job, and the company would make it difficult for him to find work in the province again. It would be difficult to pay for Stanton’s university education. Adult concerns. The local police officers are commendable: Sergeant Munn and his colleague know their community and remain cool under pressure as tensions rise. Even the high school girl, Tess, who works in the coffee shop, is savvy and sympathetic. Working in the gossip hub of the town, she knows the history of Junior Dill, the assistant manager at the dam, who toes the company line, eager to have Stanton's father's job if he makes a wrong step. During the melee at the dam, Junior physically attacks Jessica, seeming to blame her for events. Later, Tess explains to Stanton that Junior is angry at all women since his wife left him and that he had tried to bully her, but she wouldn't let him get away with it.
Mr. Rayner, through Stanton’s thoughts, explores the complex ecological and economic issues of hydroelectric power:
Stanton, listening to the chant as he ran to catch up with Jessica, wondered when ownership of the river became an issue. From what he knew of the history of the town, it seemed no one had asked who owned the river when the old Black River Pulp and Paper Company started using it to power its saws and grinders in 1899. Neither did the question of ownership arise when Black River Power took over the mill. The use of the river’s power still seemed the natural thing to do, and didn't affect its flow, or the level of its waters. But something changed when TransNational took over, something to do with the arrogance of power that allowed the company to disregard the natural state of the river, to put commerce above the well-being of the community, and to end the harmonious relationship between the river and its use by the mill, use of the river turning to misuse and abuse.
Later, the effects of the destruction of the dam are pointed out. The lake water levels have dropped to those prior to TransNational’s taking over the dam. Loons can return to their traditional nesting sites, and certain water plants are returning. A good thing. On the other hand, the men who formerly worked at the dam are laid off. To make up for the lost power, the company has brought back on line an old coal-fired electrical plant that is spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Two bad things. There is no unmitigated win. Rayner has given the reader issues to think about.
In addition to a well-developed plot, interesting characters, and intriguing environmental and economic questions, Rayner doesn't dumb down his vocabulary for a YA audience. On the whole, Black Water Rising is a good read.
A Library Support Specialist, Rebecca King retired with 25 years of service with the Halifax Regional School Board in Halifax, NS.
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