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The Essentials: 150 Great B.C. Books & Authors

By Alan Twigg

Review By Alan Twigg

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 166-68



For this fourth volume in his series on the Literary History of British Columbia, Alan Twigg has set himself the impossible task of  selecting 150 “Great B.C. Books and Authors,” designated as “The Essentials,” from his ABC Bookworld database of more than 9,000 names. The results are necessarily idiosyncratic: in his preface, he rationalizes the absence of many names that might be expected, including major literary figures such as Margaret Laurence and P.K. Page and significant scholars like Jean Barman and W.H. New. Instead, Twigg has sought to highlight original contributors to “a broad spectrum of literature,” making choices that are sometimes unexpectedly informative and sometimes rather curious. For example, while it is certainly of interest to learn about the important 1944 “Vrba-Wetzler report” on Nazi atrocities, whose author became a BC resident in 1975, does Rudolf Vrba merit a full entry when Joy Kogawa receives only passing mention (in Ken Adachi’s entry), despite the crucial role of Obasan in enlightening Canadians about our wartime treatment of the Japanese?

The book proceeds chronologically, beginning with the first European writings about the land that would become BC. The initial sections cover great swaths of time until 1950, after which the entries are arranged by decade. Foundational texts by 18th-century Spanish visitors, John Jewitt’s captivity narrative, various travel accounts, and works dealing with pragmatic issues ranging from mining and geology to Native languages and anthropology (Boas and Teit) quickly establish the range of inclusion. The write-ups are characterized by superlatives and an emphasis on firsts: Martha Douglas Harris was “the first female author to be born in BC” (58), Frederick Niven was BC’s “first professional man of letters and the first significant literary figure of the Kootenays” (74), and A.M. Stephen was “the first BC author to double prominently as a social reformer” (81), a claim that might be disputed by admirers of the “crusading spirit” (64) of Agnes Deans Cameron, who racks up an impressive five “firsts.” As Twigg proceeds through the 20th century, he informs us about some authors and books we should know better: for example, Andrew Roddan’s God in the Jungles; The Story of a Man without a Home (1931) complements Irene Baird’s canonical Depression novel, Waste Heritage (1939). It is nice to see the inclusion of librarians W.K. Lamb and Sheila Egoff, who receive deservedly warm tributes for their publications and career contributions to the realm of literary and historical studies.  

One outcome of Twigg’s sidelining of literary writers in favour of those concerned with specific aspects of BC life such as fishing, railways, ranching, logging, and public issues, is the book’s surprising paucity of women – fewer than 25% of the selected writers are female, a proportion that would be substantially different if more authors of fiction, drama, and poetry had been included, or more authors in genres associated with women, such as life-writing, cookbooks, and books for or about children. The greatest number of women occurs in the section covering the 1960s and it is disturbing to find only one woman (Ivan E. Coyote) among the dozen writers in the final section, titled “New Millennium.” Some compensation is offered with the huge list of “other authors pertaining to women’s issues and lives in British Columbia” (65-66) inserted in a tiny font as an appendix to the entry on Agnes Deans Cameron. Similar, briefer “see also” lists, directing readers to entries on the ABC Bookworld website, appear at various points throughout the volume, as do photos of many undiscussed writers. This strategy works well to situate the chosen 150 within the larger context that Twigg has documented in other media.

Those who feel that the literary avant-garde is under-represented among Twigg’s “essential” 150 will be comforted by Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature, a collection of fifteen essays that examine a variety of literary figures and endeavours from the 1950s to the present. The volume sets the stage with Hilary Turner’s essay which draws on published biographies of Roy Daniells (by Sandra Djwa) and Earle Birney (by Elspeth Cameron) to recount the conflict at UBC  in 1954-63 between Daniells’ traditionalist approach to literary criticism and Birney’s advocacy of creative writing. The resulting split initiated Canada’s first department of Creative Writing and laid the ground for the innovative era that was to come, as described in Colin James Sanders’ discussion of the “San Francisco-Vancouver Axis” that connected West Coast poets in the 1960s and 70s through the pivotal figure of Robin Blaser. Subsequent essays pick up these threads in Michael Barnholden’s account of the heady blending of poetry and politics that characterized the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement and other publications of the early 1970s, Ron Dart’s description of clashes between nationalist and international literary ideologies during the 1960s and 70s, and George McWhirter’s probing examination of enduring tensions between UBC’s departments of English and Creative Writing.

Interspersed among these historical studies are the more personal notes struck in other contributions. In an interview, P.K. Page recalls her exclusion from Robin Skelton’s poetry circles in Victoria in the 1960s (“I was not part of anything,” 69), her dislike of Irving Layton (“a wretched man,” 74), and her admiration for Dorothy Livesay (“We didn’t get on, Dorothy and I, but I admired her,” 75). Memory also informs Mike Doyle’s description of working with George Woodcock and Judith Copithorne’s list of poetry events that took place in Vancouver in the 1960s. Most personal is Carolyn Zonailo’s captivating memoir about growing up as a poet and her experiences in largely feminist West Coast literary and publishing circles. The remaining essays can be grouped under the themes of environmentalism, nature, and Aboriginality, in Susan McAslin’s close analysis of the ecopoetics of Don McKay, Tim Lilburn and Russell Thornton; Trevor Carolan’s essay on Gary Snyder’s ecological concerns; Paul Falardeau’s discussion of Robert Bringhurst’s attention to Haida oral culture; Chelsea Thornton’s analysis of the inner and outer landscapes of Northern poets; and Martin VanWoudenberg’s concluding thoughts about Deep Ecology.

Literary history is a highly selective endeavour and it is always easy for critics to find gaps in inclusive volumes such as these two under review. For example, Daphne Marlatt might have figured more prominently in both. To their credit, these two books cover considerable ground in their mappings of BC’s literary history from very different perspectives, and substantially enrich our understanding of this province’s cultural complexity.

Trevor Carolan
Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature 
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2010   pp. $20.00 

Alan Twigg
The Essentials: 150 Great B.C. Books & Authors 
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2010   pp. $24.95