Grace River is a slim little novel, told from the alternating perspectives of four residents of a small town in British Columbia called Grace River. It’s a town where most people know each other, where most people grew up nearby, and the main industry is the smelter, Axis.
Our four narrators are Jessie, Daniel, Kali, and Jackson. Jessie and Daniel, husband and wife, grew up together in Grace River. Daniel works at Axis, as do all his friends. He works twelve hour shifts and then goes out to drink with his buddies before heading home to Jessie and their young daughter. Jessie is a waitress at the local diner, has begun to suffer from panic attacks and is beginning to wonder if who Daniel is reflects on who she is.
Jackson, the classic good guy, is still in awe that he ended up with his beautiful wife, Caroline, but also aware that she’s still the hard partying girl she’s always been, despite the fact that they now have two sons.
Kali is the only outsider of the group. Newly-divorced, she has arrived in Grace River with her two daughters and begun to date Mike, another local Axis worker. She’s a classic hippy, working at the health store, growing herbs in her garden, and brewing teas.
The action of the novel is started by the arrival of an American environmentalist. He’s in Grace River to test the waters, to see what damage Axis may be having on its surroundings, what it may be sending downstream, all the way to Washington. His presence is a cause of tension for those who work at Axis, who continue to insist that their work is safe, that Axis is doing things right, even as it begins to appear that the company may be hiding some things.
As these tensions mount, so do the tensions in each of these relationships. These are friendships and marriages largely created by proximity. It’s a classic example of being best friends with people because you’ve always been best friends. The book does a great job at opening up a small town and what life is like for many in such places where there aren’t a lot of other options. The characters are all interesting enough though tend to be a little similar in their descriptions and voices.
The tension surrounding Axis and its potential harm felt tacked on to me from the main plot drama, which is relationship-based. First of all, it seems too obvious that a company named Axis is going to be bad. Has there ever been a good Axis in history? Environmental and health concerns are a real thing in real communities like this but the timing in the novel felt too convenient, particularly when things start to go badly at the smelter. I was surprised too that there was no sense of anxiety among the townspeople that Axis would be shut down. In my experience, that is a very real fear in small towns with one major industry like this. Even if people know something’s might be bad for them – and, by and large, the characters are aware that they’re being exposed to lead and other harmful elements – the need for a job and an industry to keep the town going are much stronger than fear of future health issues. The characters have that lack of concern for the future because the present is okay but the novel never really explains why they’re okay with their lead exposure. It felt like a missed opportunity to further address why and how people get stuck in small towns like this. We get, perhaps, a glimpse in the character of Jessie, who is constantly coming up with plans to change her life, like making wooden chairs or selling jams but she never tells us what her final goal is. Does she want to leave Grace River or does she just want to make some extra cash. The result is that she comes across as flaky, even at the end when she does finally make a push to change her life in a major way.
There’s a lot of potential in this novel, Hendry’s first, and while it misses the mark in some spots, I hope to read more from her.