Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Dry Water

A Novel by Robert J.C. Stead
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Dry Water

Dry Water tells the story of Donald Strand, from the time of his arrival as a ten-year-old orphan at his relatives’ Manitoba farm in 1890 to his apogee as a successful farmer. It recounts the crises he faces during a troubled marriage and the great stock market crash of 1929. His life parallels the growth and development of Manitoba during the same period. Dry Water is the second book in the Canadian Literature Collection from University of Ottawa Press.

Donald Strand was twenty-one years old in August, 1901. He took the day casually, as other days; it did not seem to mark any particular milestone in his life. For years he had been a man, doing a man's work. Twenty-one meant that he would vote at the next election, but otherwise had no practical significance.

He had spent the forenoon waltzing the new binder and four-horse team through a field of early-ripened wheat. The smell of paint was still on the machine and its bearings were not yet run smooth, but it clicked out the sheaves with masterly precision. From his high seat he watched the whole mechanism; the reel striding implacably forward into the standing crop, the glitter of knives as they sheared the yellow straw, the momentary poise of the severed stalk before it fell headlong on the canvas, the full-throated vomit of prostrate wheat as it was hurtled into the packers, the swift circle of the discharge arms and the fleeting wink of the knotter ere the sheaf was shot onto the carrier. It had become routine to him in his eleven years on the farm but a routine that never sagged into drudgery. There was music in the hum of the drive chains and poetry in the swaying wheat.

As the noon hour approached he glanced ever and again houseward for the flag which would indicate it was time to stop for dinner. The horses, too, nodding prodigiously under the heavy load and exuding the pungent odor of sweat into the hot air, had an eye for the signal, and when it made its appearance summoned unsuspected energy for the last homeward sweep along the field. Donald smiled a little as the machine speeded up, a handsome, firm-lipped smile which gave a glimpse of strong white teeth against a sunburned face. At the end of the field he dropped from his seat, threw the trace-chains over the horses' backs, and guided them through the stooks to the water trough in the yard. The windmill was clank-clanking in a slow breeze, but the trough was well filled, and the thirsty animals plunged their muzzles into it, snorting with satisfaction and indelicately dripping white slavers into the trough.

Mr. Strand came down from the house. He had put on weight with the years; his body bulged over the waistband of his pants, the skin sagged about his jaws, and the angle between neck and chin was flattening into a fleshy curve. The broom-like beard he had formerly affected had given way to a trimmed chin-whisker revealing a swarthy, well-haired expanse of chest where his shirt hung open at the throat. But there was strength in his step and he could still upon occasion set a pace for the younger men, albeit he now was satisfied to set the pace for a short period and then find his presence was needed at some less strenuous duty of the farm.

"How's she goin', Don?" he asked, as the two men stood together watching the horses drink.

"Fine as silk," Donald answered. "That eight-foot cut makes the old binder look like the barber's clippers. Whoever stooks up to that machine will have a wet shirt before night, I promise you."

Mr. Strand put his hand on his nephew's shoulder. He had to reach up a little to do it now; his arm hung around a body tough as oak. "I guess Tom'll follow you all right — with a little help from the old man," he suggested. "Go and get yourself washed up for dinner; I'll put the horses by. You know the new school ma'am starts boardin' with us to-day an' ye'll need to get the machine oil out o' yer hair."

Donald laughed. "School ma'ams don't worry me, Uncle," he said. "Unless they try to be — intellectual. However, I'll hope to do the family justice. Tom's not back yet?"

Mr. Strand glanced up the road toward Alder Creek Station, where the shoulders of four grain elevators cut their solid cubes against the northern sky. "Should be here any minute," he said. "That Maggie-mare jus' eats up the road, an' Tom lets her go. A bit too fast, I tell him sometimes — an' that goes for you, too, Donal', me lad. It's gettin' to be the dangdest age for speed. I use' to do it with old Ned an' Dick an' the lumber wagon — well, well, them was differen' times." Mr. Strand sighed gently as though not entirely in sympathy with the new tempo. "He'll be here any minute," he repeated, returning to the matter of Tom's arrival.

"He'd better. I'm just out of twine. I'm thinking he'd make better time if he didn't have to pass Crisp's." "You mean Katie?"

Donald grinned. "Who wouldn't?" he shot back over his shoulder as he left on a dogtrot for the house.

Donald washed at the bench in front of the house and threw the dirty water at the surrounding hens. Before a mirror nailed to the wall he parted his hair with just a little more exactitude than usual. He glanced at the finished job with some approval. School ma'ams might be nothing to him, but all girls were girls.

Ellen met him in the door. Ellen was tall and slim and had an oval face and cheeks that kept their schoolgirl complexion without any artificial assistance. Nature had given her a skin of light olive color which resisted the ravages of sun and wind, but better still, nature had given her a cheerful spirit which gleamed in her eyes and hung in the smile of her thin red lips. The curves of her body, too, slim though it was, might have been modelled by a sculptor; not even familiarity could breed indifference to her charms. Donald knew this as his shoulder rubbed hers slightly when they met.

"Many happy returns, Don," she whispered, "but don't let Miss Wilson know the great day it is. You'll be scheming to go to school next winter and they don't take 'em over twenty."

Donald gave her arm a pressure that was more caress than pinch and moved in to his place at the table.

"This is Miss Wilson, Donal'," Mrs. Strand introduced them. "Donal' is our nephew but he's lived with us ever since his parents were drownded when he was a little boy, an' I'm sure he's jus' like our own son. Miss Wilson is the new school teacher, Donal'."

Donald bowed and Miss Wilson acknowledged the greeting with what seemed to her just the right degree of reserve. This was her first school, but she knew some things that were not in the curriculum; for example, that a teacher must not make the mistake of being too friendly, especially with the young men. With her first glimpse of Donald she knew, too, that this principle ran some risk of being shattered. All the more need for her studied reserve. Donald allowed an appraising eye to rest on her a moment. She was shorter than Ellen and a little sturdier in the build; her skin was of the milk-white kind that takes freckles easily—a band of them bridged her nose and flung scattered outposts well across her cheeks; and her hair, with one more dash of fire, would have been indisputably red. She was younger than Ellen, too; Donald estimated that she was not more than eighteen, and she would need all the firmness suggested by her full-length upper lip in handling the boys and girls of Sundown School.

"I hope you will like your school," he ventured.

"Oh, I know I will." On that point she was quite enthusiastic.

Excerpted from Dry Water by Robert J.C. Stead. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2008. Pages 81 - 84. Reprinted with permission.

Born in 1880, Robert James Campbell Stead started his career as a writer at the young age of 12. His first book was published in 1908 and until 1931, he wrote 13 novels, short stories, books of verse, magazine articles and speeches, all of which featured the Canadian prairies. He was the first president of the Ottawa branch of the Canadian Author’s Association and later, became the national president of this organization. He died in 1959.
Jean Horton is Professor Emeritus of English at Concordia University College of Alberta where she taught medieval and Canadian literature. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the fiction of Ralph Connor and Robert J. C. Stead, including the Dry Water manuscripts.
Neil Querengesser is Professor of English at Concordia University College of Alberta where he teaches Canadian Literature. His works include presentations and articles on Archibald Lampman, F.R. Scott, Malcolm Lowry, Patrick Lane and Alice Major. He has also published numerous reviews of Canadian authors and their works.
The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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