Starbuck Valley Winter
November 4, 2013
Review By Arn Keeling
YOU WON’T FIND many kids like Don Morgan these days. The plucky protagonist of this reissued children’s novel is a sixteen-year-old who hunts avidly, builds a waterwheel-driven pump to supply the farmhouse with water, and dreams of running his own salmon troller. Don’s skills are in woodcraft, not computers; he gets around using snowshoes and canoes rather than snowboards or cars. So far from contemporary teen life are the novel’s characters, situations, and settings that it is admittedly difficult to foresee this book’s appealing to young readers today. That said, Starbuck Valley Winter offers readers an opportunity to revisit the literary and personal world of Roderick Haig-Brown (1908 -76), among this country’s foremost twentieth-century nature writers.
Haig-Brown emigrated from England in 1931, eventually settling at Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Best known for his popular books on fishing and country life, Haig-Brown also wrote two novels for adults and seven books for young readers. He was an ardent conservationist and well-known public figure, serving as a stipendiary magistrate for the Campbell River District, as a personnel officer in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, and, in the early seventies, as a commissioner for the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission and chancellor of the University of Victoria.
Something of these diverse pursuits is woven into his stories for young people. They combine a sense of adventure and love of the outdoors with an appreciation for personal strength, courage, and skill in facing challenges from society and nature. Along with its sequel, Saltwater Summer (1948), Starbuck Valley Winter belongs to that characteristic subgenre of youth fiction, the boy’s adventure story, which to greater or lesser effect, employs nature as both a setting and a didactic element. Literary biographer Anthony Robertson observes that, in the Don Morgan stories, “it is the possession of nature and a proper relationship with it that the boys strive to attain.”1 In this sense, Starbuck Valley Winter echoes a central theme of Haig-Brown’s writing: self-discovery through interaction with nature.
Drawing on Haig-Brown’s personal history and experience on British Columbia’s resource frontier, Starbuck Valley Winter is set on a northern Vancouver Island ranch where the orphaned American hero, Don Morgan, comes to live with his uncle’s family. Don dreams of the freedom and self-sufficiency of fishing but must earn the money to buy a salmon troller during a winter spent trapping in the valley. With his friend Tubby, Don learns the secrets of trapping, tends his lines, confronts a mysterious backwoodsman, and overcomes crises, including Tubby’s near demise. Written in Haig-Brown’s typically unadorned style, the narrative is laden with somewhat wooden dialogue but is redeemed by absorbing descriptions of flora, fauna, and the details of making a living in the bush. While romanticizing the frontier somewhat, the story recalls a period when the geography, opportunities, and resources of the province seemed limitless.
Starbuck Valley Winter‘was an instant success. It won the first-ever Canadian Library Association medal for best children’s book in 1946 and the sequel won a Governor-General’s Award for juvenile fiction. Starbuck remained in print for thirty years in the United Kingdom and for twenty in Canada, appearing in a Canadian School Edition in 1968 for use in Canadian classrooms.2
For all his success as a children’s writer, Haig-Brown did not consider writing for children separate or different from writing for adults. “I think children rate sensible discussion of their own times and ways, life in their books they can recognize as not too far removed from their own.”3 While the times and ways of youth have moved beyond the Don Morgan stories, this reissue is a welcome reminder of Haig-Brown’s varied contributions to Canadian nature writing.
 Anthony Robertson, Above Tide: Reflections on Roderick Haig-Brown (Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 1984), 68.
 Robert Bruce Cave, Roderick Haig-Brown: A Descriptive Bibliography (Citrus Heights, CA: The Author, 2000), 84-96, 327.
Roderick Haig-Brown, “On Writing for Children,” Canadian Author and Bookman 35, 1 (1959): 5.