Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin
Review By Linda Quiney
December 1, 2021
BC Studies no. 212 Winter 2021/22 | p. 222-224
Marion McKinnon Crook’s Always Pack a Candle is an enlightening memoir of public health nursing in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of British Columbia in the early 1960s. Crook’s experience as a neophyte public health nurse armed with good intentions and very little practical experience is an engaging read. Presented in a popular style that renders it accessible to a wide audience, the memoir outlines the many challenges of this rugged territory nearly sixty years ago. The description of Crook’s encounters with fully loaded logging trucks, navigating snow covered and icy winding roads, is daunting to anyone unused to BC’s interior. The clanging of the massive baby-scale, rattling on the back seat of Crook’s government issue Chevy, can almost be heard.
More compelling are Crook’s interactions with her clients, both within the community of Williams Lake where the clinic was based, and out in the rural and remote reaches of the region that she was assigned to cover. Crook demonstrates clearly the inequalities of the health and social service systems in respect of the Indigenous and White client-base, observations made all the more relevant in the era of Reconciliation. The situation of women in this landscape, often coping with isolation, large families, many pregnancies, and a masculine aversion to birth control methods at a time when the pill was only newly introduced, is equally powerful. The close juxtaposition of life and death in this demanding environment is clearly delineated.
The book draws the reader into Crook’s world of TB testing, immunization in the early days of the Polio vaccine, well-baby clinics, and the constancy of venereal disease, easily treated but demanding contact tracing that could severely affect a domestic situation. It was not all hard work. There was a budding relationship with a local rancher, and the off-duty fun of stampedes, community gatherings, and even the difficulties of dressing for a dance in a sub-zero climate where party shoes and silky dresses are confronted by the realities of the environment. Nursing in the Cariboo was hard work. Few nurses remained more than a year; but it could also be immensely satisfying if the nurse was able to embrace the conditions and the community.
Crook understandably alters names and specific details for privacy. At the same time, she also fictionalizes the memoir to some extent, having taken “two friends and made them into one” and “invented a couple of characters”– a conflation of fact and fiction that is confusing at times (1). There is also an uncomfortable undertone of superiority in the presentation of Crook’s nursing colleague, Sophie, a hospital trained RN who lacked Crook’s own university qualifications.
Notwithstanding, Crook offers a strong introduction to public health nursing in British Columbia in the mid-twentieth century. She draws from personal experience to present an approachable entry into a minimally explored sphere of nursing history that also speaks to the awakening social discourse of the current age.
Crook, Marion McKinnon. Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin. Victoria, BC: Heritage House Publishing, 2021. 256 pp. $22.95 paper.