Sometimes a story earns a happy ending. Other times the characters just deserve it. The Watershed Years falls into the latter category. The protagonist is hard working, sincere and earnestly rooted in the place he was reared and still works. He’s a paradigm from another time, one before people shifted occupations and allegiances like snakes shedding so much skin. You’ve got to love Blake Arbuckle.
You might have met Blake in author Russell Rowland’s debut novel, In Open Spaces. That 2002 tale told the story of the Arbuckles, their working lives and the simmering struggles over the family spread during the period from 1916 to 1946—hard years full of war and scarcity.
The Watershed Years begins not long after its prequel ended as Blake marries his sweetheart, Rita. There’s a catch: Rita was Blake’s sister-in-law before she was his wife. Jack, Rita’s first husband and Blake’s brother, fled the family ranch during hardscrabble Depression years, and Blake stepped into the breach. Jack begins by lurking on the margins of The Watershed Years but slides to the center of events as the story develops. Also living on the ranch are another brother, Bob, his wife Helen and the family patriarch, Dad, residing with Blake and Rita.
With nearly every character either born or married into the same family, the tangle of family relationships is bound to be complicated. Still, the story is straightforward and, if languid in its pace, Rowland’s talent for landing a chapter perfectly draws the reader onward.
Hanging over the entire narrative is the prospect that the hero and narrator, Blake, will lose the ranch. In the late 1940s, when the novel is set, the natural world mostly cooperates with his desire to hang on. It’s still an enemy, ready to hurl hypothermic stupor and crop-destroying hail when so moved. But these are mostly years of plenty; with war and the Depression behind America and commodity prices at untold highs, life is good for the Arbuckles.
In the presence of bounty, some can never have enough. Blake’s sister-in-law Helen seems to be one of those people. Her scheming sets the plot in motion as she and her husband Bob team up with Jack, maneuvering to banish Blake from the land he loves.
Rowland shows real skill in handling this main thread of the plot. Loss couldn’t be more a part of ranch life as he portrays it. Blake lives with his calculating relatives like troublesome weather, broken equipment or anything else. Though the scheming spans the arc of the story, it competes with daily life in the narrative. Trouble ebbs and flows while the challenges and rewards of ranching dominate pages of richly detailed narrative.
The story needs these gaps in the ownership struggle to make clear how profound Blake’s loss would be. For him, leaving the ranch wouldn’t be the loss of his livelihood; he stuck with the ranch when there was no livelihood to be made. The loss of the ranch would be the loss of Blake’s place in the world, something as integral to his functioning as his ability to recognize himself.
Communicating what a place means to a person can be difficult even though being embedded in time and space is one of the primary facts of living. Rowland does it subtly and admirably, portraying something philosophically important by embodying it—something literature can do like nothing else—and it’s enlightening to read.
Rowland does not succeed in every respect, however. When things are sliding toward trouble, The Watershed Years feels true. But there is more than a little storytelling magic employed to keep things from playing out like they might.
The insertion of ranch hand Oscar MacArthur in chapter two says something about how magic meets reality in Rowland’s telling. The plot needs Oscar for the folksy charm he adds and to keep Blake from coming apart under the pressure exerted on him. But the world Blake lives in doesn’t need Oscar. He’s an enjoyable character who adds drama and comedy just when they’re needed, but his presence seems forced. Rowland employs a formula here—the stranger full of life coming to town—and he enlivens the staid form but not so fully that he hides what he’s doing.
When the final cards are dealt, Rowland most clearly tips his hand. Things look bleak for Blake and Rita at the book’s end. Trouble brews like a boiling thundercloud, more slowly than any weather front but just as surely as a cloud bank stretching from horizon to horizon with no way around and no light poking through. When lightning strikes, however, it so completely spares everyone we’ve come to care for that it seems false. Rowland spares Blake the choice he deserves to make, resolving everything so amenably it’s hard to believe it all worked out so well.
Still, you’ll be glad it did because the characters deserve the ending they get. I’m just not sure the story earned it for them.
Russell Rowland reads from and signs copies of The Watershed Years at Fact & Fiction Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 PM.