- The Diviner’s Tale, Bradford Morrow, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, $26.
Dowsing is a family tradition for Cassandra Brooks, a rural single mother who narrates the The Diviner's Tale, a new novel by acclaimed writer and Bard professor Bradford Morrow. As a child apprentice, Cassandra learned from her father that "Water is smart," and that it prefers yes or no questions such as "You drinkable?" As she plies the tools of her trade—be they witching rods, pendulums, or freshly cut twigs—Cassandra is a patient, respectful querier of the earth. Her craft and her deep feeling for nature are mutually informing. Cattails and jewelweed can tell her the strength of a stream; even passing songbirds provide clues.
Dowsing is presented as a holistic ritual in this novel. Cassandra meets with skepticism and a degree of hostility, and for a time is beset with doubts about the validity of her vocation. Even her father, playing the trickster, throws her a curve by telling her that he and their forebears were all fakes. The reader, however—by way of her earnest and marvelously descriptive observations—may come to intuit the elemental logic of divining for water, recognizing in Cassandra more of an old-fashioned secularist than a wand-wielding magician. Perceiving a weather shift, she notes, "Low clouds moved hastily between the ocean and overcast sky like random thoughts under a proven theory."
Innocently Luddite, she is not tied to cellular or social media networks. She reads Latin and enjoys epic poems. Her baseball-loving sons know how to prepare a meal of foraged food. Cassandra idealizes a simple life of what she terms "sweet ordinariness" but does not betray an awareness of how out of the ordinary her life actually is. Just as the Chaucerian echo of the book's title hints, Cassandra's tale proffers an elegiac glimpse of a vanishing world.
It is not only water that she divines. Cassandra has clairvoyant tendencies that she is not altogether comfortable with. She foresaw the death of her brother at age seven and unsuccessfully warned him; her quiet insularity, one gathers, formed from this experience. Her extrasensory skills in combination with unhealed childhood trauma are utilized by the author to weave a psychologically complex mystery plot. While dowsing, Cassandra encounters a dead girl—or rather, has a very palpable vision of one. In the eyes of some, this confirms her status as a crank, but when the police discover a dazed and mysterious runaway near the spot of the apparition, her gift is held to be the reason for the rescue. Deeply shaken by this inexplicable occurrence, Cassandra initially may appear almost too fragile. But when a classic psychopath materializes, her numinous sensitivity advances her into a heroic realm.
Morrow smartly sidesteps the conventions of suspense-fueled genre. The story's ambling pace is decided by Cassandra's efforts to remain emotionally intact and continue with family life as usual while registering signs that a man is stalking her. Only when she is ready does she prod the action forward. At times the story seems to lose its footing when delving into her childhood or recalling the backwoods four-wheeler stunts of her brother's friends. The author's purpose for these maneuvers, however, grows clearer as the image of the villain does. The idea is that Cassandra is divining herself—accessing the recesses of her past so the evil she detects will be forced to cross her liminal threshold.
As any novel written in the 21st century ought to, The Diviner's Tale has a sharp environmental edge. All-important to human survival, water is an endangered resource. With Cassandra, Morrow suggests it may be the freaks who save us.