Far West: The Story of British Columbia
November 4, 2013
Review By Robert Campbell
When I received this book by this popular and prolific writer, I thought it was a coffee table history of British Columbia. While Far West is large and glossy, I quickly realized that BC Studies had sent me a history book for kids. Since I am not a parent, schoolteacher, or an expert in children’s literature, I was taken aback at first. After reading Far West, however, overall I was impressed. While the promotional material says the book is directed at readers as young as nine, Francis does not sugar-coat British Columbia’s past. He may not exactly use this vocabulary, but he does not shy away from racism, class struggle, political corruption, and environmental degradation. If one reads carefully, even historiography lurks between the lines. For example, the author does not specifically mention the controversy surrounding Samuel Bawlf ’s The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake, 1577-1580 (2003), but he concludes: “Some say he [Drake] reached Vancouver Island. Others think he got all the way to the Queen Charlotte Islands [and beyond says Bawlf]. Others say he did not reach British Columbia at all” (33).
The book begins with a discussion of coastal and interior First Nations cultures. Francis includes a special section on Nuu-chah-nulth whalers on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The hunt is vividly described: “A wounded whale reacted with a violent slap of its tail … If the canoe was too close, it could easily be swamped or smashed to pieces” (21). Francis’s discussion of the maritime fur trade reinforces the interpretation that has dominated the literature for the last thirty years: “The Aboriginal people were smart traders. They were used to trading among themselves and knew how to drive a hard bargain” (37-38). He also emphasizes the ravages of European diseases, especially the smallpox epidemic of 1862. Yet, he is very circumspect – to the point of elision – about the abusive role played by alcohol in European- Aboriginal relations. Rather than confine Aboriginal people to a chapter or two, they are interwoven throughout the book.
As one might expect, the chapters generally proceed chronologically, with titles based on a big event of the time period covered, such as “Gold Rush!” and “Joining Canada.” A partial exception is the chapter entitled “Resources and the Economy.” Here we get a discussion of fishing, forestry, shipping, mining, and railway expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The prose is lively and informative, and Francis deftly interweaves the class, gender, and ethnic dynamics of a resource-based economy. Far West concludes with the debate over the 2010 Olympics and the challenges facing the province in the twenty-first century.
In terms of content, I have only quibbles about dates and facts, but a few things troubled me. Francis includes a section on rum running to the United States during American prohibition, but he says nothing about prohibition in Canada. Such an omission reinforces the stereotype that prohibition was only an American experience. I was also puzzled, for a couple of reasons, about the section on politics entitled “Bennett Too” (150). It implies that Bill Bennett succeeded W.A.C. Bennett; the first ndp government is not mentioned in the text. Second, the section title is either a sophisticated pun or perhaps is meant to be “Bennett Two.” I also wondered about a quotation concerning BC Ferries: “It is often said that BC has the largest navy in the world” (143). I have never heard that said before. Maybe Francis means the largest navy in Canada. Finally – and perhaps I am asking too much for a young reader – Francis makes no distinction between federal and provincial responsibility for residential schools (150).
This book has many fine additional features. It is lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, and drawings. Most impressive are the paintings by Vancouver artist Gordon Miller. Many are stunning, and some are reproduced over two facing pages. The book also contains a variety of sidebar material: “In Their Own Words,” “BC people,” “BC Creatures,” and “Fast Facts.” Perhaps Judge Matthew Begbie acquired his reputation as the hanging judge from this quotation: “Those who don’t want law and order can git. For boys, if there is shooting, there will be hanging” (66). At the end is a good timeline, and the index is comprehensive. I was surprised, however, that neither a bibliography nor web links were included. Far West is a good book, and not just for young readers. I intend to give my copy to a recent immigrant from China who wants to know more about the province she now calls home. She will learn a lot.