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Cover: Always on Call: Adventures in Nursing, Ranching, and Rural Living

Always on Call: Adventures in Nursing, Ranching, and Rural Living

By Marion McKinnon Crook

Review By Janet Nicol

April 16, 2024

Marion McKinnon Crook depicted her first year as a young public health nurse in northern British Columbia in the memoir, Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin.  (See book review, BC Studies, Winter, 2021-22.) Now a follow-up memoir chronicles her life twelve years later.   It’s 1975 and Crook is married, raising three young children on a ranch and nursing on-call with the Cariboo Health Unit.

The author’s conversational writing style conveys her empathetic and insightful relationships with patients, family and colleagues.  Stationed out of a clinic in Williams Lake, her nursing duties ranged from weighing newborn babies to testing adults for infections. Crook also made house calls, travelling over a vast landscape of forest, rolling grassland and plateau to communities such as 150 Mile House, Horsefly, Likely and Lac la Hache. “It encompassed about 3,600 square miles,” she writes of the Unit’s jurisdiction, “as big as a small country like Puerto Rico. A huge, wild country.” (p. 7)

The author underscores the pervasive racism she witnessed, especially toward Indigenous people, her awareness heightened after she and her husband adopted a baby boy who was from the Gitxsan Nation. Her response to others’ prejudice was both direct and diplomatic. When an elderly patient refused the assistance of a Chinese-Canadian nurse for example, she successfully confronted him.  On a home visit to check on a newborn, the author learned the mother was reluctant to befriend an Indigenous neighbour despite her isolation.  She also learned the mother and neighbour sewed quilts. “That’s enough to start a friendship,” Crook tells her.  “You just have to sling Michael on your back and hoof it over there.”(p. 110)

On the home front, Crook describes several entertaining and enlightening parenting moments. Humorous incidents involving ranch animals include runaway piglets, an aggressive ram and a stubborn horse.  Life in the north had harrowing moments as well. When a neighbour’s child became lost cross-country skiing, Crook’s family joined the search party.  As dusk approached, the girl’s skis were discovered, then the girl herself, wandering on the trail, a wolf’s paw prints not far behind.

Crook makes occasional observations about wider health care issues such as staffing levels. She notes the tension that sometimes existed between doctors and nurses and briefly documents the rising assertive actions of the BC Nurses’ Union.  The impact of the second wave feminist movement isn’t acknowledged however, nor the region’s economic hardships and workers’ health and safety issues, especially those employed in primary industries such as logging.

At story’s end the reader glimpses the future. Crook will divorce, leave Williams Lake in 1986 and move to Gibsons, BC where she now teaches and writes. The memoir is dedicated to Crook’s two grown children—and the memory of her third, a heart-breaking revelation.  While the book doesn’t contain footnotes, a bibliography or map, Crook’s engaging collection of anecdotal stories can be likened to a valued oral history.  The reader is offered an important record of one woman’s life as she navigated through BC’s rural medical system armed with strength, awareness and determination.

Publication Information

Crook, Marion McKinnon. Always On Call:  Adventures in Nursing, Ranching, and Rural Living. Victoria: Heritage House Publishing, 2024. 272 pp. $26.95 paper.