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Review: Watershed, by Mark Barr
Hub City Press, 2019. 303 pp. $26

Early one morning, Claire Dixon wakes because of painful symptoms of gonorrhea, which she could only have contracted from her husband, Travis. In a fury, she bundles their two children into the old car and sets off for her mother’s house nearby. The older woman, none too pleased to be roused, nor to have house guests, acts as though these burdens can only be redeemed through the arduous chores she has planned for her eleven-year-old grandson.

What a thrilling opening; you see Claire’s predicament instantly and can’t help put yourself in her place. And since this is sometime around 1936 or 1937 in small-town, western Tennessee near Memphis, hard times elicit hardness in people, while gossip about the Dixons will surely become cheap entertainment. It’s a hardscrabble place, Dawsonville, and the only hope for the future is the dam under construction that will provide the area with electricity for the first time. Not everyone greets the project with enthusiasm, either, for the federal government is the builder, which evokes fears of taxes, intrusion, or invasion by city slickers.

Initial architect’s rendering of the Watts Bar Dam on the Tennessee River, ca. 1939 (courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority via Wikimedia Commons)

One such newcomer is Nathan McReaken, a young electrical engineer from Memphis, but the way people treat him, he might as well hail from the dark side of the moon. He’s trying to catch on with the dam’s engineering office, no easy task, despite his impressive resume. Nathan’s granted a ninety-day tryout, reaching the end of which will require cleverness, talent, and political skills.

Like a bunch of other out-of-towners, he rents a room in a boardinghouse run by Claire’s Aunt Irma. But unlike them, he has a keener, more nuanced sense of his surroundings, and he’s far more sophisticated intellectually and emotionally, though that’s not hard. Unfortunately, he’s taken professional risks in the past, and he’s running from a mistake for which he’s been unfairly blamed. So, like Claire, he fears for his reputation too.

The 1930s and the New Deal fascinate me, so I was primed for this book. I also love the engineering office politics, easily the strongest scenes in the novel, and the cutthroat competition just to have a paying job, which brilliantly captures the desperation of the Thirties. The descriptions of the construction process and the difficulties of supply and labor offer a glimpse of how remarkable the effort was — and when you realize that this dam was only one of thousands of government projects, you have to be awed. On a more human scale, Nathan’s voice represents the passion and professionalism behind the project. He comes through loud and clear, expressing his acuity but also his loneliness:

Downstairs someone coughed. He pictured the boardinghouse as if it were a child’s miniature, each of them a doll in its own compartment. There was only the cough, the scuff of a shoe, the sudden voice raised in laughter, that told you someone was really there. A half-dozen lives playing out in parallel.

However, Watershed’s parts don’t cohere. I don’t know how Claire decides, as she does, to make something better of herself; at times, she hardly seems the unsophisticated “country girl,” as described, so what’s she changing from? She’s certainly not her mother’s daughter, and I feel I know the older woman better, what her standards are, what she cares about most, and why. Three men want Claire, or act as though they do, but, other than her prettiness, I can’t say what motivates them. Nathan, who believes he’s meant for her, just “feels right” in her presence. Okay, but the three men spend so much time maneuvering around each other, I begin to think Claire’s more an object of desire than a full person. I will say that after Travis, a complete boor, practically a thug — why did she marry him, again? — Claire’s next romantic choice makes sense.

But mostly, Watershed loses its way after its powerful start. Many chapters, though too brief to digress far and well written, have nothing to do with the story and exist only to show attitudes toward the dam and the electricity that will come. Though I like these themes, I wish Barr had confined them to scenes in which his protagonists appear, which would have felt natural, not shoehorned in. Without revealing too much, I note that these favorite themes loom so large at the end, they confuse the resolution, which zips by. Twice, I looked back after finishing the book to be sure I hadn’t missed a brief chapter or section. I’m still puzzled.

Watershed reached print through the generosity of Charles Frazier, whose Cold Mountain Fund dedicates itself to bringing southern writers into print. I applaud this mission with fervor and look forward to future offerings. However, I urge the powers behind Watershed, whether the fund or the publisher, to devote more resources to proofreading. Watershed suffers from many errors, not just dropped letters or words, some of which make the dialogue hard to follow.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.