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CanLit Floods: They're Not Just for Noah Anymore

With his debut novel, When is a Man, Aaron Shepherd adds to the CanLit "Drowned Town" canon. 

Book Cover When is a Man

Now, this is perfect timing, bringing you Aaron Shepherd's recommended reading list on floods in CanLit just days before Father's Day. Shepherd's debut novel, When is a Man (which Mark Anthony Jarman has said "put me in mind of the best of Ken Kesey the merry prankster") with its investigations of manhood and masculinity definitely belongs on our Books for Dads list—though it's also a book for everybody. 


It’s no secret that our relationship with landscape has been at the heart of most Canadian literature from the get-go, whether it’s surviving a harsh prairie winter or just roughing it in the bush. Nonetheless, when I started researching my novel, When is a Man, I was surprised at how often I stumbled across the motif of drowned towns. Floods, apparently, aren’t just for Noah anymore. As I wrote, more books about dams and displacement kept popping up, a bit flood-like in their regularity.

In When is a Man, Paul, my main character, wonders why we keep returning to these type of stories. Perhaps it’s because they reflect our anxiety about losing our homes and way of life. Or maybe the mysterious image of a drowned town is just too compelling for writers and readers to resist.

Book Cover The Drowned Lands

The Drowned Lands by Stan Dragland

Tensions between farmers and developers on the dammed Napanee form the background of this haunting story of alienation and landscape. With a poetic and ironic sensibility, Dragland weaves the intimacy of his characters’ inner lives into the grand scope of history.

Book Cover Treading Water

Treading Water by Anne DeGrace

A poignant and powerful set of interconnected stories chronicling the history of Bear Creek, a fictional village based on the drowned farming community of Renata on the Lower Arrow Lake in British Columbia. Tenderly written, well-researched: this novel was a great guidebook for me.

Book Cover The Winter Vault

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

An intriguing, moving novel so full of ideas and memorable lines that it often reads like a lyrical essay on memory, loss and dislocation. When I first picked this up, I’d already started drafting my novel. I stopped writing for two weeks and had a good long think about Anne Michaels' book before beginning again.

Book Cover The Town that Drowned

The Town that Drowned by Riel Nason

Adult literary fiction, young adult fiction—whatever the genre, this prize-winning novel has a fantastic hero in Ruby, whose prophetic vision of her town going underwater makes her even more of an outsider than she already is.

The Missing Child

The Missing Child by Sandra Birdsell

Only Minnie Pullman knows an underground glacier is about to melt and wipe out the town of Agassiz. Eccentric characters, hilarious dialogue, and prose that is both whimsical and surreal. I don’t think anyone in Canada writes like this anymore.

Book Cover Green Grass Running Water

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

The construction (and subsequent destruction, via an earthquake caused by Coyote’s singing and dancing) of the Balene Dam is one of many plot strands in this extremely funny and thought-provoking book. Having once lived on a river below several dams, the image of the bursting dam bursting never ceases to give me chills—once I stop chuckling, that is. This is one of Canada’s greatest satirical novels.

Book Cover Progress

Progress by Michael V. Smith

The construction of a hydroelectric dam and the imminent flooding of a town provide an interesting parallel to the lives of two troubled characters: a woman paralyzed by her past, and her drug-addicted brother, Robbie. The contemporary feel of this novel sets it apart from most fiction about dams and displacement.

Aaron Shepard works and writes in Victoria. When is a Man is his debut novel.

About Aaron Shepherd's When is a ManPaul Rasmussen is a young ethnographer and academic recovering from prostate cancer. Broken, he retreats to the remote forests and towns of the Immitoin Valley. As an outsider, he discovers how difficult it is to know a place, let alone become a part of it. Then, a drowned man and a series of encounters with the locals force him to confront the valley's troubled past and his own uncertain future. As Paul turns his attention to the families displaced forty years earlier by the flooding of the valley to create a hydroelectric dam, his desire to reinvent himself runs up against the bitter emotions and mysterious connections that linger in the community in the aftermath of the flood.

An original debut novel that is meditative, raw, and exuberant in tone, Aaron Shepard's When is a Man offers a fresh perspective on landscape and masculinity.

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