Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin: Stories Worth Keeping
November 4, 2013
Review By Jocelyn Smith
Diana Wilson deserves congratulations for the excellent collection of writings that she has assembled in this wonderful book. Wilson’s aim, as she writes in the introduction, was to choose voices that reflect the multifaceted nature of the Cariboo-Chilcotin and to “show the region developing over time, with history carrying forward to enrich each story with a sense of building complexities” (11). She has succeeded. The twenty-one voices (two writers, Hilary Place and Paul St. Pierre, are included twice) that address us on these pages speak with candour and grace and what Wilson calls “that indefinable, haunting quality that makes a story last in a reader’s mind” (10).
The writers’ stories, many of them autobiographical and all of them nonfiction, are arranged chronologically. The first is Mary Augusta Tappage’s account of a young woman’s kidnapping while picking berries near Big Lake. “It is a long time ago,” Tappage (who died in 1978) begins, “but they used to steal women then. Yes, I’ll tell you about it … There were three women. Well, two women and one of them had a daughter with her. Well, the daughter, I guess, she was about thirteen. In those days, they got married early. She was married or about to get married, so I guess she was a woman, really. They went out to pick saskatoons” (15). What follows is shocking, all the more so because of the calm and measured manner of Tappage’s narration.
The next selection, equally poignant and unpretentious, is a series of diary entries: “Dusty Nuggets from a Miner’s Diary,” collected by Cariboo historian F.W. Lindsay. “17 February 1862: Left Southampton per the Shannon, a fine steamer,” the first entry reads. And three months later: “Victoria is a very fine town of 4 years standing. Some fine land” (21). One month later: “Struck tent [near Williams Lake] 7 am. Quite out of food, with exception of a little Indian meal. Down in spirits. Thinking of home and those left behind. Brought 2 lb meat on road. Bad news from the miners. Men returning for want of funds … Found a deal of pleasure in reading the Bible and wife and boy’s portrait by my side and in my mind” (23-4). The entries become increasingly terse, and the final one, on 26 October 1862, reads simply: “Left the Pavillion House” (25). The man’s fate is unknown. Haunting indeed.
The quality that all selections in Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin have in common is compassion. Of course, this is partly due to the editor’s hand in choosing the material, but it is a sure and deft hand that never intrudes into the authors’ words and never judges them or their stories. In the same way, the writers are respectful of their subjects. In “Davey Anderson,” Hilary Place writes of the young boy who, driven from his home at the Gang Ranch by an abusive father, simply walked the ten miles to the Places’ house: “He said he was not looking for charity but that if my dad would give him a job he would show that he could earn a living. He looked you right in the eye when he was talking and you had to believe him. He said he was nine years old” (130).
These stories demonstrate that effective and poignant writing is never convoluted or ostentatious. In “Wet Summer,” Alan Fry (the grandson of a member of the Bloomsbury Group) writes about his childhood near Lac La Hache. Here is how he describes a thunderstorm, from the point of view of a young boy who is spending the night in a tent: “One night the sky exploded. Torn from sleep by the sheer pain in my ears, I was instantly blinded by a flash of lightning that poured through the cracks between the poles … A horse whinnied with a scream-like cry of panic and then the bunch raced by, running the yard from fence to fence, pounding hooves close together, in terror, bewildered, running aimlessly but running, for it was all they knew to do” (143).
Each story in this collection is prefaced with a concise, useful biography of the writer and, where the stories are excerpts rather than a complete piece, a summary of the context and setting. Attractive photographs enhance many of the stories. A useful addition, though, would be a map of the Cariboo-Chilcotin that shows where each of the stories is set.
It is a testament to Wilson’s skills as an editor and the power of the stories she has chosen that many times while reading Heart of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, I wanted to rent a car and drive there at once, the book on the passenger’s seat beside me, to see each of the towns and landscapes that figure in this first-rate anthology.