Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo
November 4, 2013
Review By Jenny Clayton
Never Shoot a Stampede Queen tells the story of a twenty-two-year-old university graduate from Vancouver adapting to life in Williams Lake in the 1980s after he accidentally landed a job there as a community newspaper reporter. Once he has hooked the reader with a suspenseful courtroom scene, Mark Leiren-Young explains how he learned to be a writer and the circuitous route that took him to Williams Lake. The rest of the book explores social relations in that town through telling the stories behind his newspaper columns. Leiren-Young’s broad responsibilities for covering “crime, the environment, labour, forest fires, Native affairs, education and anything else [the editor] could think of” provide the basis for a well-rounded account of community events told by an outsider with a “pit bull”-like approach to research (49, 154). Leiren-Young wrote these stories for his friends two years after he left Williams Lake, then he set them aside for two decades until he decided to revise them for publication – a process that included fact-checking the court cases and changing individuals’ names.
Winner of the 2009 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, this book is well written, entertaining, and fast-paced. I did laugh out loud, for example, when reading about the strike at the cookie factory and the unusual bear trap. Balancing humour with more serious insight, Leiren-Young shows how ongoing tensions in British Columbia between capital and labour, urban and rural identities, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents played out at the local level. Realizing that he was underpaid, and having the advantage of intending to leave town eventually, Leiren-Young refused to work during lunch and supported unionization among his co-workers. Although some of his characterizations of this resource-based town appear stereotypical (only two radio stations, western-style clothing, and a prevalence of trucks), Leiren-Young also delves into the complex lives of long-term locals and urban transplants. In addition, this book critiques the marginalization of Aboriginal residents. For example, it provides an account of Aboriginal people who died from exposure in the winter as well as an investigation into how Aboriginal people were affected by housing segregation and the exploitative behaviour of slum landlords.
Written shortly after his stint as a reporter, and allowed to rest for twenty years, this book has a sense of immediacy tempered by reflection, and it does not hesitate to expose Leiren-Young’s own youthful naiveté. More important, in Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, Leiren-Young has the freedom to write candidly about events that mattered to him but that, for various reasons, did not appear in print in the Williams Lake Tribune. Overall, this is a humorous and critical account of a small town in 1980s British Columbia as seen through the eyes of a young man from the city.