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Review

Drawn to Sea: Paintbrush to Chainsaw: Carving out a life on BC’s Rugged Raincoast.

By Yvonne Maximchuk

Born Out of This

By Christine Lowther

August 20, 2015

Review By Molly Clarkson

Ever since Muriel Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time (1961), memoirs of some of the west coast’s most tough and toothsome women have enjoyed a prominent position on BC Ferry gift shop bookshelves. Recent publications such as Sylvia Taylor’s The Fisher Queen (2012), the collection Gumboot Girls: Adventure, Love & Survival on British Columbia’s North Coast (2012), and the stories of Nikki van Schyndel in Becoming Wild: Living the Primitive Life on a West Coast Island (2014) nestle in amongst cookbooks trading in seafood or kale-centric cuisine. But these aren’t just stories for tourists. Even we west coasters need some escapism from time to time (after all, not all of us can live on houseboats or forage for our evening’s supper), and the two most recent additions to the genre offer up the ultimate literary staycation for those who like it wet, tough, and wooly.

Maximchuk’s memoir Drawn to Sea, set in the Broughton Archipelago, is an exemplary archetype of the genre: woman sets out into the coastal wilds (with two young children in tow) to begin a new life marked by toil, adversity, and (eventual) fulfillment. Leaving the southern tourist town of White Rock to be with Albert, lover and prawn fisherman, Maximchuk soon discovers the pleasures and pitfalls of living in the tiny community of Echo Bay. There are first encounters with their new neighbours (including the finned and feathered varieties), wild storms, fishing adventures with neighbour Billy Procter, family turmoil and, of course, what no west coast memoir could be considered complete without: agonizing descriptions of homestead construction projects. Photographs of labouring family and friends, piles of slimy fish, ragtag houseboats, and the occasional glimpse of stunning north coast scenery set the scene.

A painter and potter by trade, Maximchuk depicts her world with the practiced eye of an established landscape artist. The colours are bright and, at times, the renditions can seem overly effusive (though I am unclear whether to attribute this to jealousy or literary snobbery). The intricacies of waterline construction, tiling techniques, and septic field systems are, at times, explored in a detail unsuitable for vacationing minds. But there is a refreshing lack of inhibition to Maximchuck’s account and an unpretentiousness that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Christine Lowther’s autobiographical collection of short stories, Born Out of This — a reference to the Roman goddess of passion, Venus, who emerged from the ocean in a seashell — works within the west coast memoir genre, but offers up something quite different from that of the generations of writers who preceded her. In contrast with Maximchuk’s wild palette, Lowther’s writing has the slick, cool texture of a river boulder. The restraint to her prose can, perhaps, be attributed to her long career as a poet. An undercurrent of grief runs through the book, which opens with her and her family’s memories of the events surrounding the murder of her mother, the poet Pat Lowther, and fragments of her experiences growing up in foster and group homes around North Vancouver. As a young woman in the 1980s, Lowther threw herself — Doc Martens first — into the burgeoning punk scene of Vancouver, then headed to the west coast of Vancouver Island to protest the logging of old growth forest at Clayoquot Sound.

Born Out of This is as much about punk and politics as it is a meditation on wild places. The excellent chapter “Generally Giving a Damn” chronicles Lowther’s work as a young zine creator and punk activist in Canada and the UK, while “We Tremble in Response” reflects on growing up during the cold war and the author’s early activism against nuclear armament. The politics of Clayoquot Sound also infuse these stories. Lowther’s houseboat is anchored at Meares Island, site of the 1984 protests by members of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation to stop proposed logging of the island by MacMillan Bloedel. In one memorable chapter, Lowther climbs an eight hundred year old western red cedar to save it from the ragged teeth of the developer’s chainsaw.

Born Out of This is a deeply place-based account of one woman’s life on the edge. Unlike other contributions to the genre, however, Lowther embraces the fluidity between urban and wilder places in a way that is wholly her own, and she includes meditations on urban wildlife and calls for the “mingling” of writers across the coast’s social landscape. Daring to crisscross activist stereotypes and literary genres, Lowther’s passion lives up to her title. May I offer a homebrewed toast to the wild west coast women’s memoir, and to these two excellent additions to the collection.

Drawn to Sea: Paintbrush to Chainsaw: Carving out a life on BC’s Rugged Raincoast.
Yvonne Maximchuk
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2013. 272 pp. $24.95 paper

Born Out of This
Christine Lowther
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2014. 208 pp. $21.95 paper