Raincoast Chronicles Fourth Five
November 4, 2013
Review By Jocelyn Smith
The sinking of the BC Ferries vessel Queen of the North on 22 March 2006 has brought the lives of British Columbia’s coastal residents into sharp and extraordinary focus. It is a safe bet that most British Columbians knew nothing of Hartley Bay before its residents set out in the middle of the night to rescue survivors from the ferry; a safe bet, also, that many British Columbians could not have imagined (and had likely never thought about) how the loss of a ferry would affect the lives of coastal residents in every village and town from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert and well into the hinterland. By chance, this morning I heard that the BC and Yukon Hotels Association Board of Directors has demanded that “all levels of government cooperate to immediately address the ferry service crisis in the north.” They add that “the Provincial Government needs to understand that this is causing a domino effect that will result in tour operators cancelling services for years to come. They maintain it is not a regional crisis limited only to the north but a catastrophic situation whose effects will be felt throughout BC and even Alberta” (Local News, CKNW, 13 April 2006, 0500).
Raincoast Chronicles is a wonderfully rich and varied account of lives lived in many of those coastal settlements that will be affected by the sinking. The editor, Howard White, began the series in 1972 with the intention of putting “BC coast character on the record” (7). The journal has appeared regularly since then. Each set of five issues is gathered in a collected edition, and the present edition gathers the contents of issues sixteen to twenty.
In a collection with more than thirty contributors and the broad man date to put character on record, it is both inevitable and desirable that the contents will be difficult to describe succinctly. The first and last items in the collection (issues sixteen and twenty) are Pat Wastell Norris’s “Time and Tide: A History of Telegraph Cove” and Stephen Hume’s exceptional photographic essay “Lilies and Fireweed: Frontier Women of British Columbia.” These are the polished works of professional writers: “People tend to romanticize what they don’t understand,” Wastell Norris writes with a hint of superiority, “and they certainly didn’t understand our life. They walked into our shabby kitchen, smelled bread baking and were enchanted. ‘Back to the simple life,’ they enthused. But it wasn’t a simple life; it was actually very complicated, and it stretched our capabilities to the limit” (43). At the other end of the collection, Hume writes in a neat book-end of a response: “Until recently, women’s own voices often emerged from the history of the day only as footnotes, brief asides, amused anecdotes, secondary references or quotations from forgotten journals, letters, memoirs, household accounts and family stories” (344).
The thirty-four pieces that lie between these entries cover topics ranging from the life and remarkable death of Francis Rattenbury, the selling of Estevan Lighthouse in 1942, west coast fishing superstitions, the smallpox epidemic of 1862, shipbuilding during the Second World War, and a firsthand description, in photographs and words, of each stage of the canning line at California Packing Corporation. Of course, some pieces stay in the memory longer than do others; of particular note are Margaret McKirdy’s “The Doctor Book,” a poignant and beautifully written memoir detailing the influence of a home medical book on her and her family’s lives, and Douglas Hamilton’s “Aflame on the Water: The Final Cruise of the Grappler.” In terse and stark prose, Hamilton describes the deaths, in many cases preventable, of 100 passengers aboard the steamer Grappler, which sank on 29 April 1883 in Seymour Narrows.
Two items would make this outstanding collection even better: a map of British Columbia that shows the locations about which the authors write (will the people of Hartley Bay figure in a future issue of Raincoast Chronicles?), and a biographical sketch of each author. What, for example, is Margaret McKirdy’s connection with coastal British Columbia? As moving as “The Doctor Book” is, I could not see how the piece fit in with the overall theme of the collection. And what did Hallvard Dahlie do with his life after his three-month sojourn in a lighthouse on Cape St. James in 1941, described with humour and compassion in “Light at the End of the World”?