Let me say first this novel is a masterpiece. Second only to her previous masterpiece, Evidence of Things Unseen. If you missed that one, make sure to read. Unforgettable and important, that's also how I would describe Properties of Thirst. Characters that leap into your consciousness and stay there as if old friends. Along the way, Wiggins weaves lessons of history, sets a powerful sense of place, and delivers a page-turning story. In the spirit of Stegner or an American Tolstoy. Historical, political, and also a love story. How often will those elements merge so beautifully?
...that what it meant to be American - what he'd thought it meant - was a portion of the whole, that whole was out there was a spectacle beyond his keyhole view, that once you are truly in it, even from an airplane, as far as you can see - everything is still too vast too large too big to be a unified idea - nothing out there but unmitigated Nature, testifying to its nothingness in the breadth and depth of its emptiness.
The fictional story [grounded in historical detail] relates to the establishment of Manzanar, the internment camp set-up for Japanese residents in northern California after Pearl Harbor. Told through the lens of the government agent sent to spearhead the project, and the local ranching family with whom he becomes entwined, and who are struggling with water rights [yes, way back then, water politics went hand in hand with fascism.]
Schiff had estimated there would be "ten thousand" but the mind resists that number: the mind transforms that number to a cipher with no face. Yet here they were, busloads of them, silent and confused, transported only with the things they carried in their arms and pasteboard luggage: their memories.
Along the way, there is love, and loss, of course. The land as a sustaining force. Also, the sustaining and bonding nature of food - fantastic descriptions of food, better than any TV chef, because the rancher's daughter is a self-taught gourmet chef. Add the passions of a sophisticated east-coast aunt with an unconventional lifestyle and the elders of the Japanese community, coalescing to counter ghetto living, and spice with fascinating economic and historical insights.
As for the properties of thirst, they are elucidated at the start of each chapter, beginning with the element of surprise, to memory, desire, truth, and spontaneous combustion, among others. A most original defining structure and the properties of our lives. A must read for the erudite reader. And make sure to read the Afterword, by Wiggins' daughter, which describes the long remarkable journey to the completion of this book. Another achievement by the great Marianne Wiggins.