We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.
Wrong Highway is the memoir of Stella Jenkins, a middle-class mother of four from Victoria, who in 1948, recently divorced, formed a relationship with Bob Smith, a trapper and labourer. Stella left Victoria with her two younger children and joined Bob in Smithers. They married in July 1949, had one child, and lived and worked in various parts of the BC Interior and the Yukon before returning to Victoria in 1953. Wrong Highway is the story of their life together until Bob’s death from an accidental gunshot wound in 1956.
Jenkins’ memoir provides a glimpse into small communities, work, gender, social relationships, and Aboriginal stereotypes in the BC Interior and the Yukon in the decade following the war. Jenkins provides detailed accounts of the terrain and of the trapping and fishing life, which give the reader a fuller sense of life in rural BC in this period. The characters are quirky and humorous.
Wrong Highway details Bob Smith’s outdoorsman skills, trapping techniques, and his building their log cabin in Clinton. He trapped and worked as a labourer but dreamed of owning a hunting lodge, while Stella took work where she could find it. The most interesting parts of the book deal with her employment, most notably a contract as section cook at a railway camp in the Yukon, where she not only cooked for the men who worked the track but was also responsible for requisitioning the supplies, notifying other section houses when a train was on the line, dispatching rolling stock, keeping equipment records, and getting the mail ready for pickup by the next train.
Jenkins was not the only slightly rebellious middle-class woman to strike out into a very different world after the war. Wrong Highway does give us a better sense of what some of those women actually did. However, despite her new work roles, constrained financial circumstances, and peripatetic life, Jenkins was never very far from her urban origins. At times she resorted to sending her children back to “better” circumstances in Victoria, and some of her comments demonstrate that her basic attitudes remained. For example, she remarked about one couple, “they were living common-law. I was quite put off and thought do we really have to be with people like this all the time? By now it was obvious that the north was a sinkhole for drifters, runaways and illicit relationships” (128). It seems not to have occurred to her that she and Bob might have been described using these very terms.
Unfortunately, the insight Jenkins provides does not extend to Aboriginal peoples who, when mentioned at all, are portrayed in stereotypical and largely negative ways. We read, “It was while we were in Smithers that the Indians obtained their franchise and were allowed into licensed parlours. They came in droves at first but couldn’t handle their liquor” (60). Later, Jenkins informs us that “In 1952, the inhabitants of the valley tended to fall into groups: ranchers, sawmill people, hotel people, government staffs, merchants and Indians -- the latter very much in evidence in the pubs on Saturday” (281).
Jenkins implies that her attitudes changed over time. In describing a warm greeting between a white woman and a group of Aboriginal women in Whitehorse she reflected, “My own view of Indians at the time was that they were okay as long as they behaved in a civilized manner, but of course most of them didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t. It never occurred to me to meet them like this woman, on their own terms” (122–23). Such views were the norm among white people in BC in the mid-twentieth century, but that they should be so unproblematically expressed in a book published in 2011 demonstrates just how much work we still need to do to eliminate limited and stereotypical depictions of Aboriginal peoples.
Wrong Highway will be of interest to anyone seeking to know more about how people lived outside the larger cities of British Columbia and particularly how women’s lives did and did not change after the Second World War. Jenkins seems at pains to depict herself as having lived a rebellious life. In some respects she is indeed an example of how some women rejected the norms of the period. Nevertheless, in reading Wrong Highway I am reminded that we are rarely as rebellious as we like to think.
Wrong Highway: The Misadventures of a Misplaced Society Girl
By Stella T. Jenkins and Mark E. Smith
Surrey, BC: Hancock House, 2011. 360 pp, $24.95 pb
BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.