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Review

Home to the Nechako: The River and the Land

By June Wood

A Trail of Two Telegraphs: And Other Historic Tales of the Bulkley Valley and Beyond

By Jane Stevenson

Pioneer Daughter: Footnotes on a Life in Northern British Columbia

By Vesta Foote Leslie Philpott

June 19, 2014

Review By Jonathan Swainger

The risks involved in writing local history are many. Readers are frequently presented with celebratory accounts of the virtues of a community or region – accounts that offer little save for the claim that they somehow demonstrate local character. Such histories tend to dwell on local “firsts,” anomalies, setbacks, or achievements. Although this applies to far too many local histories, it should not be understood as a condemnation but, rather, as an observation on how often authors sell themselves short by failing to even tentatively reflect on questions pertaining to what these histories can tell us about context, the endless variety of human experience, and the extent to which our communities are representations of larger stories and currents. To varying degrees, this is a timidity that these three books share.

June Wood’s Home to the Nechako is a passionate and often thoughtful portrayal of the environmental history of the region straddling the Nechako River in north central British Columbia. It is an account centred on the Kenney Dam construction in the early 1950s; the heavy-handed dispossession of the Cheslatta First Nation just hours ahead of the rising flood water; the ecological repercussions of reversing the Nechako in order to supply power generation for the Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan) smelter built near the “instant” community of Kitimat; the later and still ongoing fight against the Alcan Completion Project; the struggle to preserve and increase the dwindling white sturgeon stock in the river; and the pine beetle epidemic that swept through northern British Columbia in the late 1990s and for the decade that followed. More than the other two authors, Wood is aware that, beyond the geographic proximity to the Nechacko River and its drainage basin, these events are linked by northern British Columbia’s historic and contemporary provision of raw material to interests operating in an international marketplace. Be it hydro-electricity, timber, animal pelts, mineral resources, oil, or natural gas, northern British Columbia has, for over two hundred years, been a theatre for the playing out of such dramas. And, all too often, the legitimate concerns of local residents and their environment have been pushed to the margins in favour of outside agencies and their interests. This does not mean that Wood can be read as an unbowed opponent of development of every sort, but it does mean that she can be read as implicitly asking whether a balanced view of development ought to include a more respectful accounting of its consequences for the local environment and the people who live there. It is a question that still resonates throughout northern British Columbia.

In her Trail of Two Telegraphs, which brings together a series of articles previously published in Northword Magazine, Jane Stevenson relays a selection of intriguing stories about life in the west-central interior of British Columbia, which extends from Prince George to Prince Rupert. Ranging from Simon McGillivray’s account dispatched from the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers in the summer of 1833, through the completion of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1914, to the work of Prince George-based photographer Wally West, and to the wildcat strike at Kitimat in 1976, Stevenson’s stories provide engaging snapshots of how people and communities constructed their individual and collective senses of self in northern British Columbia. Here, too, we see the region portrayed as a testing ground, a land where one might start anew, a geographic or physical space to be endured if not conquered, a homeland for the region’s original peoples, and a place where residents were regularly reminded of the thin margins and sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of success. As with Wood, one can recognize in Stevenson an individual consciously aware of the larger context, even if she chooses not to interpret its many possibilities. Rather, her goal is seemingly to tailor her vignettes to a reading public drawn to intriguing, amusing, or even bewildering anecdotes. Still, Stevenson recognizes that, while these accounts of life in northern British Columbia often cast the region as a symbol or a quest, those who stayed and persisted in their own pursuit of the good life were responsible for transforming an ideal into a lived reality.

Finally, in Vesta Foote Leslie Philpott’s Pioneer Daughter we are offered a personalized remembrance of growing up in northern British Columbia around Fraser Lake that, in its detail, underlines for readers the fact that the testing experiences of non-Native settlement in the region are not relics of a long forgotten past. The conditions on distant and often isolated farms, along with the equally challenging circumstances encountered in some of the small communities in the northern interior within the past seventy-five years, contribute to a chronicle not quickly forgotten. Observing that life was “hard” fails to adequately capture what “hard” meant, particularly to women whose lot was to keep the home fires burning through depression, war, and peace. That Philpott is an enthusiastic amateur historian shines through on every page, but even if this might cause some readers to turn away, she nonetheless offers us glimpses of the human experience –- of extraordinary yet ordinary people who, even if they did not scan the horizon in search of a context within which to understand the hand they had been dealt, nonetheless played that hand in a manner that said something about the expectations of those living in a pioneering region.

Taken together and read within the evolving body of literature on northern British Columbia, these three books can point readers towards the question of how the region has reacted to and attempted to shape the world in which it developed over the course of the twentieth century. They expose readers to an assortment of intriguing, aggravating, and sometimes amusing histories that speak not only to lives lived, opportunities pursued, and challenges answered but also to the growing realization among northern British Columbians that, if they fail to take up the task of writing their own histories, then others, whose interests may lie elsewhere, will do so for them.

Home to the Nechako: The River and the Land
June Wood
Victoria: Heritage: 2013. 176 pp. $17.95 paper

A Trail of Two Telegraphs: And Other Historic Tales of the Bulkley Valley and Beyond
Jane Stevenson
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin: 2013. 192 pp. $26.95 paper

Pioneer Daughter: Footnotes on a Life in Northern British Columbia
Vesta Foote Leslie Philpott
Prince George: Lake Shannon Printing, 2013. 128 pp. $20.00 paper