Now It’s Called Princeton: Songs and Poems of BC’s Upper Similkameen
River of Gold
November 4, 2013
Review By John Belshaw
Both of these works step outside of conventional history, and to very good effect. One is a novel in which the principal characters participate in that mid-nineteenth-century mass movement, the BC gold rush. The other is a CD containing no fewer than twenty-seven songs and poems relating somehow to the Similkameen. Precious metals are a common denominator; otherwise, these two works are like chalk and cheese. They do, however, succeed in doing what they set out to do, thereby making a genuine contribution to the field.
With very few exceptions, the CD avoids boosterist schlock and focuses instead on working people’s songs (as distinct from union songs). Some people love this kind of heartfelt, banjo-laden thing. Not me. But the selection of songs and poems – traditionals, rare vernacular poetry from the pages of the Similkameen Star, and a few modernish contributions – are entertainingly grim. These are not anthems to the nobility of work, province/nation-building, or the brotherhood of man; rather, they are principally about back-breaking and dangerous work, drinking, stupid politicians, dirt and grease, sneaks, suckers, and death.
The theme is, at bottom, the daily round. Even the poem “In My Dreams” is about predictable routines. The everyday struggle with troublesome people, machinery, and stuff cries out for a medium (like song and poetry) that is, itself, built for repetition. The whole is organized into subject sections (Mining, Logging, Railways, Prohibition, and Settlement) and the jewel box contains a hefty little booklet that describes the region’s history, the topic material, and a little about the individual pieces. At the end of the day, however, the whole depends on the performers. Bartlett’s voice is rich and oaky; Ruebsaat’s has a kind of intensity that holds one’s attention by the lapel. There are some nice insights here, and a song about the Hope Slide brings the project significantly closer to the present time than is usually the case.
Susan Dobbie has written a sequel to When Eagles Call, both of which centre on life in the colonial era. The year is 1858, heading into the winter of ’59. Opportunity beckons two Kanaka men in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Langley. They are joined by a just and strong Afro-American who may or may not be on the run from a Yankee lynch mob, and the foursome is rounded out by a Q’eyts’i woman who is freed from slavery by the principals of the story, Kimo Kanui and his chum Moku. There’s something encyclopaedic to River of Gold in that just about everyone who might make an appearance does, and those who don’t probably sent their regrets. There’s a man named Cook, who has a ferry; there’s that fellow Spence, who dreams of building a bridge; there’s a stealthy Tsilhquot’in raiding party spoiling for a fight.
By focusing on the painful details of the trek up the Fraser Canyon, the psychological uncertainty of men and women launched into a career of enormous risks, and the gruelling toil associated with a short, sharp season of mining – building shelter, constructing flumes, keeping competitors at bay, and so on – Dobbie does an excellent job of conveying monotony, fear, and exhaustion. This is, one feels, how it must have been.
What obviously sets this account apart is the positioning of the Kanakas, the African-American, and the Aboriginal at the centre of the story. Yes, they encounter plenty of whites (Haoles to the Hawaiians) and Chinese, but it is resolutely their perspective we experience. Having decentred the familiarish story, the author can take us places we may not have gone before. Two of the gold crusaders have been at the sharp end of slavery. The river is nearly choking with corpses, casualties of war around the forks. Aboriginal communities get their proper names, and yet the author is not wholly beholden to political correctness: mostly, the Natives are “Indians.” The four travel to the Cariboo, but they have little to do with Barkerville: their time is almost wholly spent in their isolated claim on a tributary of the Quesnel River. A good choice, in my opinion – another horse opera set in Barkerville is not what the world needs. The irony is that Dobbie reinforces at least one old saw: her protagonists meet with Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie and leave us in no doubt that they are in the presence of a Great Man.
Do these two approaches work? As an account of the gold rush, River successfully reminds us that there were many participants and that, despite unifying experiences, their stories cannot be distilled into one straightforward narrative. Princeton conveys something different: sounds of the past, textures of the daily grind, and a black sense of humour in the face of it all. An undergraduate class wrestling with historical narrative, voice, and the skills necessary to conveying a sense of time and place could do much worse than inspect these ambitious projects.