Shortlisted for the 2017 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction
Canada-West – Best Regional Fiction IPPY Silver Medalist
Set in 1906 along the unspoiled shores of Lake Manitoba, Be Still the Water brings us into the fold of the Gudmundsson Family—immigrants determined to begin life anew in the Icelandic farming and fishing community of Siglunes. At the heart of the novel is dutiful Asta, the middle daughter who lives in the shadow of her siblings—fiery Signy, headstrong Leifur and sweet, naive Freyja.
When Freyja goes missing, Asta embarks on a quest to bring her sister home. She tells the family’s story some seventy years later, while on her deathbed, finally discovering the truth of what happened on those fateful days that set the course for her life and the lives of everyone she loved.
Loosely inspired by area events, this is an emotional, slow-burning story of family love and sacrifice, of secrets revealed and promises broken—told in the spirit of the Icelandic Sagas.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY:
My new novel, Be still the Water is set in the early 1900s in the real communities of Siglunes, Hayland and the Lake Manitoba Narrows. I know them well, having lived there for more than two decades. It is not where I grew up but it is the place where I matured, where I spent some of the happiest years of my life. I no longer call Siglunes home, but like those who lived there before me, its memory still brings a smile to my face.
Every few years visitors would come to the farm, strangers to me but descendants of the land. They always asked permission to walk the fields and understood the importance of closing gates. They would return hours later smiling in soft melancholy, with windswept hair and cheeks kissed by the sun.
There is one particular visit I remember. Baldrun Paetkau and Valerie Larson came in the summer of 2001. Baldrun was visiting from Sechelt, B.C. and wanted to see her childhood home. She was also hoping to locate a prairie gravesite on the homestead where her grandmother once lived.
We followed the shoreline through acres of beautiful hay land to an oak tree and near it found a stone cairn. This marked the site of at least three graves and buried somewhere beneath was a single casket holding the remains of four children from one family, casualties of the Diphtheria epidemic that swept through the area in the early 1900s. Baldrun’s grandmother was the only child who survived. As Baldrun retold her grandmother’s story, I felt a residual sadness and an anguish that can only be imagined.
I knew that someday I would take all the lake stories I’d heard and write about the settlers of Siglunes.
What prompted me to write Be Still the Water ten years later
One morning in June 2011, I turned on my computer and logged into Facebook to check the flooding situation at Siglunes. The lake had been rising since late April and all of the land surrounding it was by then under water. The roads were impassable and the families there were being advised to leave their homes.
History was repeating itself. They were calling it a “once in a hundred year occurrence,” as the flood in 1950 was, except only 61 years had passed. Forecasters believed it would happen again very soon and it did—two years later. The floods of 2011 and 2013 were man made. Descendants of the settlers who’d established farms along the lake and supplemented their incomes through commercial fishing had predicted years earlier that if the Portage Diversion was built, it would someday ruin Lake Manitoba.
Instead of going back to the third draft of a novel I’d been working on, I opened a new page on my computer and began a story about love, loss, hardship and promises. I thought of the early settlers I’d heard so much about and based my characters on them.
Is this fact or fiction?
My goal was to tell a story about those early immigrants and include many of the lake stories I’d heard over the years, however, this is a fictionalized telling of those events. All of the characters are my own creation except for a handful of historical figures. There were no villains living in Siglunes but I needed to create a few.
I’d like to thank a few early pioneers
Geirfinnur Peterson wrote The History of the Icelandic Settlements at the Narrows, Manitoba” and there were many contributors to the Taming the Wilderness history book. Both were excellent resources that helped as I researched the time period. Some of my plot ideas came from reading portions of these books.
This story has a lot of characters
Historical novels often do. I couldn’t tell the story of Freyja’s disappearance without creating a large community. Neighbours were so important back then. Also, the book spans many years and there is a lot that happens. I’ve tried to create memorable characters and hope the reader falls in love with a few.
Who I enjoyed writing about most
The women. The story has a lot of men in it but I believe the women carry this story. I especially enjoyed writing the character of Amma. She is a real firecracker and someone I would love to know.
What I hope the reader feels after reading this book
The characters’ love for the land and the lake.
A respect for those early immigrants who laboured so hard.
A desire to honour their descendants who work every day to preserve a unique, wholesome and environmentally beneficial way of life.