Chasing the Comet: A Scottish Canadian Life
November 4, 2013
Review By Michael Vance
ALTHOUGH HIS NAME does not appear in the tide, this book follows the eventful career of David Cadlow, who was born in Dundrennan, Ayrshire, but spent most of his life contributing to the development of agriculture in British Columbia. Written as a first-person narrative, Chasing the Comet highlights Cadlow’s life experience – an experience that spans almost the entire twentieth century. There are very few first-hand accounts of Scottish immigration to Canada in the last century, and much of the evidence is fragmentary and understudied. As a consequence, Chasing the Comet does offer a seldom-heard perspective on the Scottish immigrant and settlement experience. It would, however, be most fruitfully read in conjunction with Marjory Harper’s broader examination of early twentieth-century migration, Emigration from Scotland between the Wars: Opportunity or Exile? (1998). As Harper’s study indicates, Scottish migrants tended, like Cadlow, to be from the Lowlands rather than the Highlands; however, unlike Cadlow, they tended to originate in urban industrial cities rather than in rural agricultural communities.
For David Cadlow, the early training on his father’s Scottish farm accounted for success in a career that involved experience working at McGill’s Macdonald College farm in Quebec in the 1920s, eking out a living at mixed farming in the BC Interior during the early days of the Depression, and accepting a series of farm manager positions from the 1930s to the 1960s. In all of these contexts, what he identifies as his Scottish training is always present, helping Cadlow to solve problems, whether with crops, livestock, or labourers. The narrative also connects David Cadlow’s emigrant and settlement experience to the coincidental development of British Columbia’s institutions. In particular, a large section of the text is devoted to detailing Cadlow’s contributions to the Colony Farm attached to the Essondale Asylum in Coquitlam. The shift in treatment of the mentally ill from work therapy in the 1930s to reliance on sedation in the 1960s clearly disturbed Cadlow, but most of the narrative focuses on farming practices (189). In addition, the importance of broader Scottish social connections is highlighted as a key factor in allowing Cadlow to obtain positions of responsibility and influence. For example, the narrative attributes his hiring at Macdonald College to his Scottish accent and connections (27). Moreover, the broader Scottish community often appears in the text with frequent references to Scottish societies. Indeed, David Cadlow met his future wife, Peggy McMillan, at a Scottish dance in Vernon in 1933 (113). Although the marriage lasted over fifty years, very little space is given to discussion of domestic life, thus reflecting broader Scottish patriarchal attitudes. It is Cadlow’s career that seems to matter most to the narrator.
So far, Chasing the Comet is the only male account in the “Life Writing” series published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The other titles in the series clearly reflect the feminist goal of promoting “life writing” as both an object of study and as a practice. “Life writing,” in this context, gives voice to the marginalized, and Chasing the Comet does not fit easily into this framework. The text is complicated by Patricia Koretchuk’s decision to combine her own editorial comments and Cadlow’s orally recorded memories into a first-person narrative. If a White writer were to adopt the voice of a Salish cannery worker in order to recount her life, the problem would be obvious. While Koretchuk acknowledges what she is doing, she does not resolve the issue of appropriation that her text raises. Indeed, the unresolved tension between the point of view of the writer and the subject of this book is clearly displayed in an interview with both of them, which is published on the Wilfrid Laurier University Press Web site. According to Koretchuk, the book is “like a good novel, it… informs and gives insight into the humor and drama of the human condition … [It] offers readers the opportunity to escape to a no less personally challenging, but simpler time.” But, David Cadlow asserts, “It is my life. I can hold it in my hand.”