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  • Stephen D'Agostino

Building Reservoirs and a Novel

In 2002, shortly after I moved to New York City, I went to the doctor for a normal checkup. New to the city, I asked her if drinking water from the tap was safe. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me like I had just insulted her mother. She told me that the water in New York City is the best water of any city in the country. I thought that was a bit of hyperbole, but I took her word.

Three years later, I saw the Pepacton Reservoir for the first time. It’s located in the Delaware County Catskills, probably 100 or so miles to the northwest of the city, behind this sign. My doctor’s words rang in my ears and a thought rang in my brain. How horrible it must have been for people to give up everything they'd ever known so New York City, so far away, could build a reservoir here.

New York City’s Catskills reservoir-building project was kicked off in 1905 and was finished in 1965. In that time, 6 reservoirs were built and 22 villages were destroyed and over 5800 people were displaced. THE DUTIFUL SON was kicked off in 2005 and was finished in 2011. In that time, 5 revisions were written, 204,000 words were whittled to 150,000, and a forest full of trees was sacrificed for the paper it took to print it over and over again.

The communities targeted for destruction in THE DUTIFUL SON are fictional, as is the reservoir proposed by the city. Its location, however, is real. It’s the location of the Pepacton Reservoir. And that is an indication of how I handled history in my novel. I used bits and pieces of the histories of several of the reservoir projects to produce the events that take place in my book. Another example, my book takes place in the 1930s. At that time, the closer-to-the-city Rondout Reservoir was constructed. The Pepacton Reservoir wasn’t started until 1947.

For various reasons obvious in the book, I wanted the story to be set far away from the city and in the Depression-riddled 1930s. And since THE DUTIFUL SON is fiction as much as it is historical, I took my liberties in telling my story, and hopefully, a sliver of the stories of the people displaced so that I could drink from water from the tap.

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