Midway through Dianne Warren’s admirable novel, “Juliet in August,’’ a minor character looks out at the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan and observes, “The landscape was so vast and simple, reduced to sky and grass and sand. Yet, in the surface at her feet, she saw patterns as intricate and complicated as the veins in an insect’s wings.”
The dunes are more than a geological curiosity on the edge of remote Juliet, population 1,011. They supply the overarching metaphor for this wry and beautiful book about ordinary people with intricate lives and complex relationships trying to navigate their way through a landscape that “keeps shifting and reinventing itself.”
Warren introduces us to Juliet’s inhabitants through a series of vignettes set over the course of a single night and day. Lee, abandoned as an infant on the porch of a Saskatchewan couple who raised him, now lonely and overwhelmed in the wake of his adoptive parents’ deaths, is nonetheless trying to make a go of the farm that’s been left to him. His night and day are spent on an impetuous, hundred-mile ride on an escaped horse. Willard, shy but fanciful, lives chastely with Marian, the wife of his late brother, runs the local drive-in, and fears that his sister-in-law is preparing to leave him. Vicki Dolson and her husband, Blaine, have lost all their land and livestock to the bank, can barely feed their six children, and struggle to keep faith with themselves and each other. Their day is occupied by Blaine’s hot and thankless work on a road crew, and Vicki’s ditzy but poignant flight from the green beans that need canning. Norval Birch is the banker who is their nemesis, a decent man whose blistering shame at doing his job at the Dolsons’ expense breaks his heart.
This is Warren’s first novel, after three collections of short stories, and the artistry that form requires is on display here. With a relatively plotless book about just ordinary folks in a small, rural town, Warren risks wading into a quicksand of cliches. But she and we emerge unscathed. These people are not cute, folksy, or romantically idiosyncratic. They have cellphones; some ride horses; and some do yoga. Each brief chapter focuses on a single resident, and though the delicate plot lines are engaging, it is with the richness of the townspeople’s personalities and the land they inhabit that Warren really hooks us. Like Japanese brush paintings, each character lives in motion on the page, a small and exquisite gift. Their paths intersect and their stories develop, but each vignette is so cleanly and carefully wrought that it can almost stand alone.
Despite the smallness of their town and the sameness of their days, there is nothing routine about Warren’s protagonists. They live in a world attentive to small landmarks — an ancient stone where the buffalo used to rub their hoary hides, the well in the old Catholic churchyard, the glow of the Dolsons’ porch light — and in a place where, as Lee notices, “You could stand out here and watch your own footprints disappear.” The people of Juliet look backward as well as forward, crane to see not just where they are going, but to discern the footprints that have brought them to where they are.
Looking out the window one night, Marian “follows Willard’s dark shadow as he turns another circle like a man who has lost his way and is trying to remember the tricks of navigation. She watches the firefly light of his cigarette, disappearing and then appearing again as he turns, turns in the darkness.” The image is apt, as “Juliet in August’’ is fundamentally a book about people’s quiet heroism in piloting their own lives.
Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at jwschlack@gmail