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About this book
- Finalist for the 2020 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize!
Three years into the second millennium, Majestic, Alberta is a farm town dealing with depressed crop prices, international borders closing to Canadian beef, and a severe drought. Older farmers worry about their way of life changing while young people concoct ways to escape: drugs, partying, moving away. Even the church is on the brink of closing.
When local woman Annie Gallagher is struck by lightning while divining water for a well, stories of the town’s past, including that of Annie and the grandmother who taught her water witching, slowly pour forth as everyone gathers for her funeral.
Told through the varied voices of the townspeople and Annie herself, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning reveals Majestic to be a complex character in its own right, both haunted and haunting. Here, Audrey J. Whitson has written a novel of hard choices and magical necessity.
Book Club Questions
- This novel is told from the first person point-of-view of eight different narrators. What difference did the structure make in the way you read or understood the book?
- Alberta was a leader in the Eugenics movement in the early 20th century. The Provincial Training School for the Mental Defectives turned into Michener Centre in the 1970s. What do you think about Alberta’s complicated history with Eugenics, how much did you know about this history, and how does that history affect your reading of the book?
- There is much discussion in this book about a changing way of life in rural areas, from crime rates to farming practices. What surprised you the most about these changes? Different characters had different responses to these changes. Whose perspective did you most identify with?
- Who is your favourite character and why are you drawn to them? Is there a character you don’t like and do they have redeeming qualities?
- Does Majestic itself feel like its own character? Why or why not?
- Annie has overcome a life of hardships. How does she survive? How does she eventually heal? Does she experience stigma regarding different aspects of her life: alcoholism, water divining, her acting as a female healer, etc.?
- Annie frequently refers to the la fève (broad bean)? What meaning did la fève have for Annie? For her mother?
- Magpies show up more than once in the story. What is their meaning for you? What is their meaning in this novel?
- After Annie’s death, her friends sense her presence in the water. What meanings does water have in the book? What meaning does it have for you?
- What do you think of Jack’s statement: “I know we’re capable of loving many people in a lifetime?” Do you agree or disagree? How has this been true for you? Or not? How does his belief reflect the way his character reacts to Annie’s death?
- If you were to write the epilogue, how do you think things would turn out for Kristian and Kelsey? Jack? Alex? Mike and Vera? Buster and Daisy? Father Pat? The Bishop? Bob and his roses? For the town and church at Majestic? For Annie’s memory?
Excerpt from The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning
You can smell the rain on the wind, a right smell for witching. The aspen that survived have taken on a tawny-yellow cast, the way they colour just before the limbs awaken. The willow seem the stronger, most seem to have resisted the drought. Deeper roots maybe. The black poplar, nothing but grey weathered sticks punctuating the pale green understory. You can see it in the shelter belts, the thinning this year, the trees that just didn’t make it.
There is no water to witch anymore. Unworkable, the cost of digging, the pumping, all that electricity when I have to tell them two hundred, three hundred, five hundred feet deep. They shake their heads. It isn’t magic what I do; I can’t conjure it. I can only find it.
And now this news of the bishop. He’s coming to close the church. But more than that, he’s coming.
This Thursday morning, I have Bob stop the truck just short of his yard. For a new well, I almost always choose a branch from a living tree. A green willow is best, a bit of water still in its body. It has to be green and it has to have give. That’s how it finds the stream. And I always start before sunrise.
We set up in the pasture behind the old corral. The slope is better than in front. Higher ground. Less likelihood of groundwater contamination at spring run-off. I begin to pace, like a monk walking his cloister, straight lines back and forth, head bent, arms outstretched, ears open. A choir monk listening for the cantor. My breviary, the divining rod. Nana called it a goddess branch after the Cornish. Palms down, both forks of the wand gripped, one in each hand, I try to feel the water drawing down from the branch, the crook in my hands speaking to the crook in my legs, to the tingling in my feet. The power in me, the power in the wand: intermittent. The feeling of the current is faint in me. Even at my fullest powers, I have to strain to hear it.
I make a widening circle. Not a vibration. A small meadow vole is watching too, worried for its place in the grass. I am careful to watch for and walk around its nest. A hundred paces on I stop and sit. Sometimes that works best for a while. Cross my legs on the earth and empty my mind, just listen for the pace, the rush of water, a faint layer beneath, muffled there, from so high above the surface.
Bob taps me on the shoulder, interrupts my reverie. “Are you sure about that sky?”
I rise again and twenty feet across the pasture, the willow branch jumps in my hands. I mark the spot, have flags ready for the purpose fashioned from old nails and strips of cloth.
I murmur sometimes when I witch. The farmers say I chant. I often close my eyes. There are usually no words, but an intention and a chord that focuses the mind, then a straining to hear the steady hum of the unseen water, the songs calling from beneath. I sway; I hang on and follow where the current takes me.
Yet today, I summon all my powers of concentration, all the spirits I can muster: the dead, the living, saint and animal. I call on them all. “Nana. Papa. Maman.” Their names anchoring me; finding an echo in my bones; the electricity in my hands.
The wand wavers. I hold it close to my pelvis, try to stop the shaking in my hands. Then the dream I’ve had for days breaks in, a harsh dissonance: my young self wakes reaching for breath. Arms crossed over chest, the straitjacket pulled tight behind me. So tight, I cannot move. A young Bishop Leo, a priest then, standing over me; his words stripping me, harsher than any indignity he might have performed. Inside the straitjacket in my dream, my hands won’t stop shaking. The rod pulls down hard, starts to shiver; my hands sweat.
“I thirst,” I say to no one in particular.
“Despite the lemon squares and the familiar agri-business headlines, this is not a domestic novel. Rather, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning reads as if it has come out of translation, out of a language created and shared within a community formed by geography, memory, and its own expedient, indefinable spirituality. It’s a funeral story told in forks of lightning, dozen of voices, flashing in and out of transfiguration. Like a good translation, it’s unafraid to leave in shadows what it can assume everyone already knows, rushing instead to throw light on what—until now—has been unknowable.”
"With humour and heart, Whitson peels back the small-town preoccupations of a winning cast of characters, laying bare the mysterious undercurrents of their world and beyond. Annie the water diviner is a force to be reckoned with, even after her death. This book is lyrical and lovely, a stunning achievement."
"Majestic is depicted with poetic complexity. Annie's friends have a salt-of-the-earth goodness, and Annie herself is a faceted, compelling woman who emerges from personal darkness to find her own peace."
”Whitson’s novel is, by the end, a reckoning with the past, both personal and communal, but also a tale of joy—the earthy preparations for the dead and a divining born of the body.”
"It’s tricky business, allowing so many voices to create the narrative in a story, but Audrey Whitson has linked these people together not only as people who loved Annie, but as community. Relationships with Annie emerge, and so too do the intimate details of the lives of her neighbours." full review
"[a] stunningly written novel...." full review
"... a powerful read that weaves together these characters in an intricately fascinating way that made me want to continue reading. It gives death an endearing and peaceful face that satisfied me from the beginning to the end." full review