Raincoast Chronicles 22 – Saving Salmon, Sailors and Souls
Raincoast Chronicles 23 - Harbour Publishing 40th Anniversary Edition
May 9, 2017
Review By Howard Stewart
The nine non-fiction stories told in Raincoast Chronicles 22 – Saving Salmon, Sailors and Souls share a common theme of “service on the BC coast.” Apart from that, they are a very mixed bag. They range from Methodist missionary women offering refuge to other women arrived from China who found themselves forced into slavery or prostitution, to career bus drivers in Vancouver, to volunteer park builders on the Sunshine coast. Four of the nine relate to moving people and goods around the coast – by boat, helicopter and bus. David Conn’s able editing has helped ensure this heterogeneous collection is consistently well written.
This edition of Raincoast Chronicles, like its predecessors, offers stories about coastal people and their work that might easily have been lost to posterity. Like earlier editions, RC 22 tells stories that are almost archival in nature. Most give voice to people who would not otherwise have it, enabling them to tell stories that are not often published, about things like working on coastal freighters, building park lodges, or protecting damaged salmon streams. These clear and highly readable accounts will be of value to BC historians and writers – at least those who condescend to read “popular history” – both now and in the future. The majority of the stories read much like oral history; one of them – about two young doctors starting their practice in Ganges in the late 1940s – is mostly transcribed interviews with the protagonists. Each of the nine pieces is effectively supported by a wealth of high quality, well annotated black and white photographs.
So much for the objective description of contents and its contribution to BC scholarship. But what did I really find most gratifying about this collection, apart from the consistent high quality of the writing and the diversity of stories? These stories underline many salient features of our recent past that ought to be remembered: the golden age of sport fishing on the inside water before Chinook and Coho populations collapsed; the incredible dangers of flying in this treacherous landscape of rugged mountains, giant trees, and deep dark waters; the almost impossible challenge of protecting rich wilderness heritage and moribund salmon streams in the face of an entitled forest industry grown desperate as wood stocks dwindle; the often surreal stories of the vessels and navigators plying the endlessly complicated inside waters. The latter is my personal favourite in this collection: Alan Haig-Brown tells stories of moving everything from groceries to dynamite between the fetid toxic waste dump that was the old False Creek and the many isolated little community wharves that, for a few decades, lined the coast in much greater numbers than today. But perhaps Haig-Brown doesn’t qualify as one of those people whose voice would not otherwise be heard?
Raincoast Chronicles 23 is different from #22, discussed above, and most others in the RC series. It is thicker than most, at almost 200 pages. Its thirty pieces of prose and six poems include contributions from relatively well known voices such as Stephen Hume, Grant Lawrence, Anne Cameron, Al Purdy, and Harbour’s own publisher, Howard White, as well as accomplished local historians from Harbour’s stable: people like Jeanette Taylor, Paula Wild, and Jim Spillsbury. The collection celebrates forty years of publishing by Harbour. They have assembled what they consider to be “some of the more memorable passages… [but] only a taste… [of the] unique flavour Harbour has brought to BC’s cultural life” (8). Each piece has been extracted from a book published by Harbour between 1974 and 2014. The result is a tour de force. Virtually every entry is a compelling, fascinating read; there is something in there for everyone, from serious scholars of the coast to general readers looking for a good read. I’m not really qualified to say whether they have succeeded in their goal of giving us a taste of “Harbour’s unique flavour” – I’ve only read two or three dozen of the more than six hundred books they have published since the early 1970s. But they have certainly succeeded in giving us a taste of the unique flavour of life on the BC coast since the beginning of the colonial era. Like most Harbour books, much of this collection reverses the often Vancouver– or Victoria–centric world view that characterises so much modern BC writing. With the exception of Mike McCardell’s delightful sketch of Emily Carr – the only fiction prose in the collection – the coast’s two biggest urban zones are confined to minor supporting roles. If they figure anywhere at all, the cities are places of origin or destinations rather than settings for the stories recounted. This is not a criticism about Harbour’s chosen focus. But it may be a weakness for the publisher in the future; if they want to remain relevant for their coastal readers they may want to delve more into the urban experience.
But oh, those stories. I’m glad it was editor Peter Robson instead of me who had to render down thousands of chapters from hundreds of books into this homage to Harbour’s body of work. One wonders if there might not be another book or two hidden in the also-rans, the inevitable contenders that didn’t make the cut for this book. As it is, we are presented a Harbour-ite collection of stories and poems about real/surreal characters, places, communities, animals, adventures, and dangers that – were they not true – could only have been credibly brought to life by the most adept of fiction writers. Who could believably depict a fictional character who, like Tofino’s Fred Tibbs, builds himself a hundred-foot spruce tower on the edge-of-the-world ocean, then climbs to the top of it every day to serenade the little town across the water with his trumpet? Many of us might know the Kafkaesque nightmare of being caught up in a bureaucratic vanity project doomed to failure. But who could imagine it in a hell-at-the-end-of-the-earth setting like a doomed lighthouse forty miles northwest of Cape Scott, six hundred feet in the air, so windy that every building threatened to blow away at any moment, and so fogbound the lighthouse couldn’t see the ships nor the ships the light? Who has heard of pods of dozens of blue whales, dancing over the water on their tails? Or, my personal favourite, a dump truck driving loads of dead farm salmon up and down the twisting highway between Pender Harbour and Sechelt while striving with ever less success to keep the putrid, rapidly liquefying cargo from slopping over the driver, the road, and passersby? I suppose it is these kinds of stories that, cooked up together, create the “unique flavor” publisher Howard White was aiming for.
Raincoast Chronicles 22 – Saving Salmon, Sailors and Souls
David R. Conn, Editor
Madeira Park: Harbour, 2013. 128 pp. $24.95 paper.
Raincoast Chronicles 23 – Harbour Publishing 40th Anniversary Edition
Peter A. Robson, Editor
Madeira Park: Harbour, 2015. 192 pp. $24.95 paper.