A Heart-Filled Story with Powerful Connections

From cover of The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning

Review by Aurora Frewin

I love when I find an unexpected, pleasant and satisfying reading that warms my heart. Published by NeWest Press in 2019, Audrey J. Whitson’s third book, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning, follows the story of Annie and her connections to the residents of the fictional Alberta town Majestic. I found this little gem when perusing the internet for books related to Edmonton. Whitson had created a truly rewarding read that brings together the intricacies of the past, secrets, crisis and faith. 

Audrey J. Whitson, who grew up in a small town in Northern Alberta, is a resident of Edmonton, and has published articles, essays, and poems, as well as two other books. One of her books, Teaching Places published by Wilfred University Press in 2003, won book of the year in Foreword Magazine, and was shortlisted for the Grant MacEwan Award and others. Her short story collection The Glorious Mysteries, published by Thistledown Press in 2013, was also shortlisted for a couple of awards.

Set in Alberta during the drought and the BSE (aka Mad Cow Disease) crisis in 2003, which effectively closed Alberta beef borders, the town suffers the loss of one of their beloved elderly town members: Annie Gallagher, who is both wise and inspiring. She perishes when struck by lighting while she was water witching – a diving practice where a forked twig is used to find water.

The story follows the townspeople during the cleaning of her body, the wake, and the funeral. Throughout the book, references to young people doing drugs, getting pregnant, and other topics in relation to alcoholism, pro-life, homosexuality, and Catholicism are made. This novel depicts not only the economic crisis the small town goes through, but also reveals the complexity of a small-town life holding secrets, and a shared love for someone who helped them all.  

 The plot of the novel is simple as it follows the preparation of Annie’s body, a viewing and the funeral. Simple plots are not typically my thing, but for this novel it makes sense. Riddled throughout are secrets the townspeople have kept hidden from everyone except Annie. Some are scandalous while others are tame. This adds interest to the plot as the characters are very complex, and I wanted to know more about them. Splitting up the narration was a satisfying way to learn about the characters, and to hype up the novel despite the simple plot. 

One of the reasons I was drawn to this book was the narration style. It is narrated by twelve townspeople – eleven of them having been directly affected by Annie and the twelfth is Annie herself. The narrations are separated by their names and switch throughout every chapter. Each character’s narration is beautifully woven together with some events overlapping, like the wake, but gives a new insight into the people and surroundings.

These perspectives can be a little hard to follow since there are so many of them, but the characters are quite distinct. What the narration style allows for is how deeply connected everyone is to each other. The characters watch out for one another, always worrying about some kid or another farmer in the town. As an example, a couple of the town members save a kid named Kristian from some bad people. 

One of my favourite characters is Annie Gallagher. She is very distinct in terms of spirituality. Whitson’s own spiritual knowledge is present in Annie, as she studied theology at the Graduate Theological Union in California, and has taught Catholic, feminist, and ecological spirituality. Annie Gallagher’s divination practice is very dear to her and gives her a chance to give back to the community by finding water. Annie also helps the community by helping provide a home for a character, giving advice, and even though she is dead she guides her community members. Annie’s narration has a calming presence while she tells her or other stories. Although she has died, she is not melancholic, and death is peaceful to her. I like this about her character because she brings hope and peace despite the heartbreak and crisis the people of Majestic go through. 

Another one of my favourite characters in the novel is Mike Pawlak. For me, he was the character who painted the town the best. He quotes life in the town as, “Just by being, you’re in the picture”. This simple line for me expresses how close knit the town is. Even if there is a character that is lacking a respect, the town still goes to help them in their time of need. Mike narrates beautiful images throughout the town, even when narrating scenes about Annie. At the wake, he states, “A couple of our circle glance over at Annie to see how she’s taking all this”, accentuating Annie’s powerful presence. I felt like I could really get an image of the town and the characters through Mike.  

            What helps tie this novel up for me is the writing. The characters are very well developed in terms of their actions, and their speech. The simple language evokes detailed images and a range of emotions I was enveloped in as I read. One such line for me was:

“After the institution, after the city, when I came home again to my father’s house, I saw his thick hands as if for the first time, muscled, scarred, so many flecks of white skin where the coals had sent up sparks and burned through.”

—Annie Gallagher

Some of the sayings in the novel are metaphorical, but these are also simple, and show how Annie’s affection deeply helped make the townspeople’s lives better. 

I loved this book. Spiritual novels are something I don’t typically read, but don’t take the inclusion of it as a reason to take it off an extensive book list.

I don’t feel like anyone must know rural Alberta or be spiritual to enjoy this book. It’s a powerful read that weaves together these characters in an intricately fascinating way that made me want to continue reading. It gives death an endearing and peaceful face that satisfied me from the beginning to the end. 

The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning is published by NewWest Press, and is also available as an e-book on Kindle and Kobo