ARMCHAIR BOOKCLUB: Living next to an energy giant

Western News book columnist Heather Allen explores a novel about a family struggling to live next to a processing plant.

It sometimes feels like the Alberta oil sands are on another planet, and extraction there doesn’t really affect our our clean lake and blue skies.

Of course in some aspects of our lives, we’re all reliant on oil and gas. Here in Penticton, many people commute to Fort Mac and back for work. Many more of us have spin-off revenue from Albertans that visit and vacation here.

But what’s it like for the rural Albertans who live next to, and in many cases downstream from, oil and gas production?

In his latest novel, Who by Fire, award-winning Alberta author, Fred Stenson, tells the story of a ranching family in the 1960s who suddenly have a new neighbour, a sour gas processing plant.

In the beginning the plant malfunctions with an immediate impact on the farming community nearby. Children grow pale and sickly, fences corrode and animals die. There is no immediate fix to the plant’s problems, so  gas continues to roll down the hills into the farmyards.

On bad days, farmers are evacuated. But no one really wants to be bothered with a lawsuit, and townsfolk who are doing well because of oil and gas money are reluctant to help.

At the centre of the story, Tom and Ella and their children try to cope with the plant next door. But it is such a huge presence in their lives that beyond making them sick, it can’t help but cause tension, strife and eventually divide the family.

The story in Who by Fire flips back and forth from the 1960s to present day. In the present, the youngest son, Billy, works in oil and gas north of Fort McMurray. At first this career choice seems a bit farfetched given his upbringing, but as time passes, Billy’s motivation becomes clear.

Who by Fire is a multi-layered, deeply moving novel, and although it is a work of fiction, Stenson writes from experience. When young, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, his family fought against a gas plant near their farm.

He was later employed by oil and gas companies to celebrate the industry, and to document its development.

During his work, Stenson met all kinds of people, including insiders in the industry who worked tirelessly to improve plant conditions such as sulphur recovery from sour gas.

Stenson has a profound connection to, and understanding of, Alberta – both its history and its culture.

Although fiction,  Who by Fire is a valuable insight into what the province has done, where it’s going, and what might happen in future collisions between industry and community.

Heather Allen is a avid reader and book columnist for the Penticton Western News