From one perspective, Burning Water may be described as an unconventional historical novel. Most of the action of the novel takes place on or near HMS Discovery, a ninety-nine-foot British warship, which is on a four-and-a-half-year mission to expedite the Nootka Agreement, a treaty signed with Spain. Captain George Vancouver, the ship’s commander, also has a mandate to chart the coastline of the Pacific Northwest and to seek the fabled Northwest Passage. Dr. Archibald Menzies’ mandate from the Royal Society is to describe and collect flora and fauna of the New World. In the process of exploring from Monterey to Nootka, the crew of the Discovery encounter native peoples, American traders, Spanish sailors, and the dangerous coastline.
As the voyage progresses, the tension between Vancouver and Menzies increases. Vancouver’s only release from the isolation of leadership is derived from his relationship with Captain Don Juan Quadra, commander of the Spanish fleet stationed in Monterey. With the death of Quadra, Vancouver’s mental and physical health breaks and his hatred for Menzies precipitates his own death at Menzies’ hand.
In addition to the central plot are a variety of digressions and flashbacks which provide information on such topics as Vancouver’s earlier relationship with Captain James Cook. The reader hears from Londoners discussing politics and reacting to the art of William Blake. One hears Indians debating about the strange behavior of white explorers.
Acting as counterpoint to the eighteenth century explorations of Captain Vancouver are the modern travels of the author. While Vancouver sails west to the Pacific on All Fools’ Day, the author flies from Vancouver east to Trieste and begins writing the novel on All Saints’ Day. When Vancouver is headed north for an Arctic summer, George Bowering travels south to a Guatemalan winter.