‘Water’ brings sex, suspense — and science — to water quality issue

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Jennifer Wilson, right, author of "Water," a novel about Iowa's poisoned surface waters, chatted Sunday with Bri Farber, a University of South Carolina graduate student studying the environmental effects of Iowa agriculture.

Water can be dry. If it is possible to make the subject of Iowa’s low water quality sexy and suspenseful and hence popularly appealing, then award-winning novelist Jennifer Wilson has done so in her 2016 novel, “Water.”

Wilson read passages from the novel Sunday afternoon at the Perry Public Library, interspersing them with background about her book and herself and fielding a variety of questions from the audience.

“Water” is the fictional story of a reporter who stumbles upon a scandal involving of Iowa’s poisoned surface waters. The varied interactions between the reporter and fictional farmers, government workers, tribal leaders and worried citizens gives the subject of water quality — a very real and non-fictional concern for Iowa’s water drinkers today — a thorough airing and lets the issue be looked at from all sides.

In general, novels written to illustrate a theory or to champion a cause are very often dreadful novels or rather dreadful as novels. Exhibit A in evidence of this truth are the works of Ayn Rand, the literary value of whose so-called novels is zero.

Wilson has largely eluded this fate, but she has recourse to some of Rand’s same devices. Her reporter heroine, Freja Fulsom, is naturally given to drinkin’ and cussin’ and sleepin’ around. This latter license so outraged the sense of middle-class propriety in a buttoned-down business reporter from a Des Moines daily newspaper that the issue of water quality almost evaporated in his review.

But then Freja — also Freya, Freyja — was the name of the ancient Norse goddess of  love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, war and death, which means she covered a lot of ground, and her novelistic modern form embodies these same powers. What male business reporter wouldn’t quail before her and her breast-feeding might?

Wilson is a noted author and blogger with extensive editorial experience at Meredith Corp. and at City View, a metro weekly. In publishing “Water,” she partnered with Mike Draper, owner of the RAYGUN t-shirt shop. Wilson’s 2011 travel book, “Running Away to Home,” treating her return to Iowa after some years away, won the Best Nonfiction Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and she was awarded the Emerging Iowa Author Award from Des Moines Public Libraries.

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