From the bestselling author of Midwives and The Flight Attendant, a comic and life affirming novel of the clash between progress and tradition, science and magic: “one of the most elegantly philosophical, urgent—yet somehow timeless—novels of these perilous times” (Howard Norman, National Book Award finalist for The Bird Artist).
Vermont is drying up. The normally lush, green countryside is in the grip of the worst drought in years: stunted cornstalks rasp in the hot July breeze, parched vegetable gardens wither and die, the Chittenden River shrinks to a trickle, and the drilling trucks are booked solid as one by one the wells give out. Patience Avery, known nationwide as a gifted "water witch", is having a busy summer, too. Using the tools of the dowser's trade —divining sticks, metal rods, bobbers, and pendulums—she can locate, among other things, aquifers deep within the earth. In the midst of this crisis, Scottie Winston lobbies for permits to expand Powder Peak, a local ski area that's his law firm's principal client. As part of the expansion, the resort seeks to draw water for snowmaking from the beleaguered Chittenden, despite opposition from environmentalists who fear that the already weakened river will be damaged beyond repair.
Reading Group Guide 1. Chris Bohjalian's novel Water Witches explores the phenomenon of "dowsing" which is described as the practice of "divining underground water with a stick" (page 3). Within the dowsing community there are those who believe anyone can dowse and those, like Patience Avery, who insist "that only select people have the power" (page 7). With whom do you agree? Would you liken it to a spiritual art or a form of witchcraft? 2. The narrator, Scottie Winston, a slick, powerful lawyer who lobbies on behalf of Powder Peak Ski Resort, also considers himself an environmentalist. However, compared to Senator Reedy McClure, Patience's groom-to-be, he states: "I am reasonable and Reddy McClure is a fanatic" (page 22). What are your first impressions of Scottie Winston? Does your opinion of him change as the novel draws to a close? 3. Comparing his wife, Laura, with her sister, Patience, Scottie explains that Laura has been the "normal" and "traditional" one while Patience "has been the center of attention" (page 106). Discuss the relationship between Laura and Patience. In what ways is jealousy a factor? 4. Patience Avery is described as an eccentric, opinionated, yet talented, woman. When Scottie is first introduced to Patience she tells him that men "have great potential to become grotesque" (page 5). What do you suppose she means by that statement? Why do you think she is so antagonistic toward men? 5. Scottie admits that when he and his wife decided to live in Vermont, "I chose simply to work for the law firm that made me the most lucrative offer. It was not, to my mind, a political decision" (page 70). How does Scottie's job, representing Powder Peak, eventually become political? Do you think he feels guilty for representing the ski resort? 6. Discuss the narrator's internal conflict regarding the environmental harm that will come as a result of Powder Peak's expansion. In what ways does Scottie justify the expansion to himself and others? Would you side with Powder Peak or the Copper Project? 7. After he and his daughter, Miranda, see the catamounts on Mount Republic Scottie can no longer advocate the resort's expansion plans. Furthermore, he can no longer act as a seemingly neutral player. What forces him to take sides? Speculate on what Scottie might have done had he seen the catamounts alone. Considering the financial repercussions, what might you have done? 8. Miranda, like her mother and her aunt Patience, has also inherited the Avery dowsing gene. Patience, who acts as Miranda's dowsing mentor fears that Scottie and Laura may stifle Miranda's talent. She tells Laura that "Your daughter's gift makes mine look like a dime store ruby" (page 58). What would you do as Miranda's parents? Would you allow Miranda to explore and develop her talent? 9. Regarding the fact that there are more male dowsers than female ones, Patience maintains that it yet another example of how men have "usurped control of yet one more God-given female talent" (page 49). Do you agree with Patience? Are certain professions naturally more suited to women? To men? 10. Vermont's drought has a profound affect on Miranda who is extremely sensitive and empathetic to the natural surroundings. Referring to her Aunt Patience and the legendary dowser, Elias Gray, she laments: "I wish they could find water in the sky as easily as they find it underground" (page 103). Does her wish come true? Discuss the scene that takes place at the Chittenden River after Patience and Reedy's wedding ceremony. 11. Part Three, the novel's finale, is written in Miranda's voice. Why do you suppose the author chooses to end with Miranda's postscript? What does the reader learn from Miranda that would have been impossible to learn from the narrator? Was it a satisfying ending for you? Why or why not?
Chris Bohjalian is the author of twelve novels, including the New York Times bestsellers, Secrets of Eden, The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and Midwives. His work has been translated into twenty-six languages. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter. Visit him at www.chrisbohjalian.com or www.facebook.com .
"In Chris Bohjalian's wise, splendid book, we hear the echo and avalanche made when centuries collide. One of the most elegantly philosophical, urgent -- yet somehow timeless -- novels of these perilous times."
– Howard Norman National Book Award finalist
"A bewitching tale from New England by a writer with a generous heart for his subjects, and respect for a landscape he clearly loves. Chris Bohjalian's voice is as steady and sure as Vermont rain."
– Cathie Pelletier, author of Beaming Sonny Home
"I was charmed by the mixture of country lore and planning boards, new age witches and old-fashioned family duties....For anyone interested in the way that we live with the land, on the land, today, this novel makes for a thoughtful evening or two of entertaining reading."
"Anyone whose family is divided between conservatives and liberals will squirm with recognition....Anyone who has enjoyed the pretension to being an insider in a capital city -- be it Montpelier or Washington -- will laugh uncomfortably."
– The Washington Post Book World
"Bohjalian's book is as beautifully made as a Windsor chair, as comforting as a long woodpile in October, and as flavorful as a Northern Spy apple."