Danielle Sosin’s debut novel, The Long-Shining Waters is an enthralling and a fascinating read infused with nature, lyrical language and poetic interludes that capture Lake Superior’s history, and extend a voice to those it engulfs be that inanimate “splintered wood” or “twisted steel hulls” or the sailors or boats that disappear in the cracks “below the water’s unmappable surface.” The majestic Lake Superior in Sosin’s novel is at once lethal, and strikingly beautiful.
The story is about three women separated by centuries and circumstances, but connected across time and place by the opulent and enigmatic Lake Superior. The lake in itself is the fourth and the omnipresent character of the book. Its whooshing and thumping waves; its calming and sometimes unnerving music is always present in the background. The water is both “cold, dark and unwelcoming,” and “The giver. The taker. Gichigami.” The lake anchors the lives of these women—the source of exquisite beauty, fear, and physical and geographical space.
The book opens in 1622, and introduces us to Grey Rabbit—an Objibwe woman, a mother and a wife, whose family is on the verge of starvation. She is haunted by disturbing dreams about her children who come to her in “danger and death.” The “waves” in her dream are like “wolves leaping over each other…”
A few pages later, the century changes to 2000 and so does the scene. Here we meet Nora, a seasoned bar owner, who is wistfully taking down the Christmas lights. Just few instances later Nora tell us that the Lake is “heartless.” Yet when Nora abruptly loses her bar, she embarks on a “full-circle” journey around this “never-ending lake”, which despite being her home has always been a stranger to her.
The narrative moves back in time, and we find ourselves in Minnesota’s North Shore, where Berit and Gunnar, a Norwegian couple, live in 1902. Berit has always lived around the lake and, being childless, the lake offers her solace: “She has been drinking the lake her entire life…” Yet, the lake tests her endurance and at one point Berit feels that “the lake’s ability to soothe her has waned.”
The narration converges the past and present, and the stories are not told in the same order, which allows them to culminate into a larger narrative about the lake. And, the “lakes”, Nora tells us, “don’t really have ends…they just keep going around in a circle,” just as life flows in a full circle.
As the three women endeavor to cope with their everyday dilemmas and the struggles of their lives, Sosin conveys their emotions powerfully.
“Berit lowers the bucket from the rock ledge. Beast. Betrayer. …Her heart leaps. She freezes. Listens. Drops everything…bursting into tears and waving her arms.”
While for Berit the lake that “she’d loved” has become “beast” and “betrayer,” for Nora it mirrors her feelings: “The lake is breaking hard…looking about how she feels inside.”
Even though this “grey” and “moody” lake tests the fortitude of these women, it nonetheless, keeps them glued to its shores, as Berit realizes, “If she stopped drinking the lake, she’d be dead within weeks.” What makes the lake so prevailing, extraordinary and mysterious is the question the novel seems to be exploring through all these characters. But there is no easy answer.
In all, the stories of all these women are beautifully woven, capturing the well-researched details of Ojibwe life, the geology of Lake Superior, and the rituals of the women’s daily life such as sewing, fishing, bartending, and glassblowing.