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Review

Put that Damned Old Mattock Away

By David J. Spalding

March 17, 2014

Review By R.W. Sandwell

In Put that Damned Old Mattock Away, long-time Gulf Island resident David Spalding draws on oral histories, a variety of archival documents, and his grandfather’s delightfully written and illustrated diary (1914-32) to explore life on Pender Island in the 1890-1940 period. His goal was to write a “history of the farm, with Grandfather’s diaries and sketches as the principal focus,” with a goal of commemorating “my grandparents’ lives here on South Pender Island, the farm they created and the family they raised” (xv). He succeeds not only in providing a detailed, often poignant portrait of their lives, but also in painting a rich and detailed overview of the rhythms and textures of everyday life in settler British Columbia.

The book follows a roughly chronological framework, beginning with the birth in 1863 of Arthur Reed Spalding, the youngest of six children of a well-to-do mercantile family near London, England. Inspired by the idea of pioneer life and a love of nature, he visited North America first in 1884, a trip during which, according to his daughter’s summary many decades later, “the New World had claimed him for its own” (8). Spalding details his grandfather’s move to Pender Island in 1886, where, with the help of a small but necessary allowance from his family back in England, he began establishing his 900-acre farm. In 1888, Arthur met Lilias Mackay, who came from a family with long roots in the British Columbia fur trade, indigenous, and colonial history. Chapters describe the slow growth of the farm and family in 1890s, “the Early Years,” and its expansion in “the Middle Years” as they emerged from pioneer conditions in the 1900-1910 period, providing many details of daily life and labour for all family members on this mixed, semi-subsistence farm, so characteristic of the Canadian rural experience in the pre-Second World War period. A separate chapter is devoted to the never-ending, often-dangerous process of “Clearing Land and Collecting Firewood.” Chapters 7 to 10 take a different chronological trajectory, providing sections on spring, summer, fall and winter, with detailed descriptions of an era in which daily activities, most of which were focused directly or indirectly on the local environment of the world outdoors, were profoundly affected by the seasons. “The War Years” details the profound effect that the First World War had on British Columbia economy and society, as seen through the lens of one family’s intense experience of a war half a world away. Lest readers get the impression that work consumed all of settlers’ lives, Spalding devotes a chapter to the leisure activities of the family and Gulf Island communities. “Winding Down” returns to the chronological narrative of Spalding grandparents. “Years of Sorrow” details the illness and death of Arthur Spalding along with other family and friends, and the difficulties that the Great Depression further imposed on the family at this time in their history. It also explains the book’s title.

It is the diary of Arthur Spalding that holds the book together. His diary entries frame and shape his grandson’s narrative, while his poems, his illustrations, and their humourous and insightful captions, give us perhaps the most vivid reflections on his experience of Pender Island and of those he loved. All in all, this book succeeds in bringing alive the history of daily life in early southern British Columbia in an era so different from our own, through the eyes of a remarkable, ordinary family. 

Put that Damned Old Mattock Away
David J. Spalding
Pender Island: David J. Spalding, 2013. 195 pp. $19.95 paper