As a longtime teacher of American literature, I find myself with an aversion to novels that claim to be the next American epic in the tradition of John Steinbeck, particularly when they’re about World War II. These novels, purporting to be the next necessary heart-wrenching tale of wartime heroism, are seemingly everywhere, but rarely do they live up to expectations. Properties of Thirst defies, dispels and demolishes those expectations and biases in the best way.
Centered on the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, Marianne Wiggins’ masterful novel is a story of land and water, of family, home and connection. For years, the Los Angeles Water Department has impinged upon Rocky Rhodes’ ranch. He’s maintained the property, fought for it and made it a home for his children—twins Sunny and Stryker—as they mourn their mother’s death.
As Stryker heads to war just before the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the Rhodes’ fiercely protected land becomes neighbor to a Japanese incarceration facility. Schiff, a Jewish man from the Department of the Interior, arrives to oversee the project. He finds himself intrigued by Sunny, and their lives twine and overlap over the course of the novel.
It’s a challenge to probe such a dark chapter of American history while properly doing justice to the ways that government policies impact both people and the landscape. The novel’s title, Properties of Thirst, introduces an extended metaphor for this exploration: Each section opens with a property of thirst (“the first property of thirst is the element of surprise,” “the ninth property of thirst is submersion,” etc.), framing the novel’s world as one where water is scarce and desire is rampant. As Wiggins uses this lens to explore questions about our history, readers won’t be able to look away.
Wiggins’ characters are raw and honest; they’re layered and human and fully realized people, from the ways they learn to communicate through their memories of traditions, food and holidays, to the connections they make through literature, particularly that of the Transcendentalists, those purveyors of idealism and individualism.
Wiggins’ writing, which can be fragmented or polished depending on the page, opens up microscopic universes and sprawling landscapes alike. It’s a joy to read. The opening line, “You can’t save what you don’t love,” echoes throughout the novel, grounding and justifying the reader’s journey toward a better understanding of what that love is and the power it holds.
In the novel’s afterword, readers learn that Properties of Thirst was completed after Wiggins’ stroke in 2016. While sitting in the author’s hospital room, her daughter, Lara Porzak, read the unfinished manuscript aloud, hoping that her mother’s “words could and would heal her brain, somehow creating a parallel existence: her shadow self living a shadow life reading her former self’s words.” Over time, the author, her daughter and editor David Ulin brought this book to the world, and in this backstory of creative collaboration, we witness the real process of saving what is loved. We are lucky, as readers, to experience the result.