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Review

The Fisher Queen: A Deckhand’s Tales of the BC Coast

By Sylvia Taylor

November 4, 2013

Review By Molly Clarkson

Promoting an upcoming reading of Don Pepper’s A Life on the Water at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, Harbour Publishing exclaims: “Here, finally, is a book about commercial salmon fishing through the eyes of a commercial fisherman!” It is fortunate, then, that for the past twenty-five years, readers have also had access to several excellent books about commercial salmon fishing from the eyes — and pens — of female fishers and women of the coast, notably Edith Inglauer’s bestselling account, Fishing with John, of her trolling days with husband John Daly aboard the MoreKelp, and Pat Wastell Norris’s High Boats: A Century of Salmon Remembered. Sylvia Taylor’s The Fisher Queen: A Deckhand’s Tales of the BC Coast is the most recent addition to the subgenre of female fishing memoirs from the British Columbia coast.

Taylor’s narrative of her 1981 trolling season in the Central Isle Cauldron off the northern tip of Vancouver Island reads like a flash of sunlight on a copper lure: sudden, seductive and elusive. At twenty-six, in the midst of a divorce and recovering from a car accident which had left her almost crippled two years earlier, Taylor takes off in a “wallowy old 40-foot wooden troller…a slow pig…a tough old girl,” with her “sexy as the devil’s own tail” boyfriend (14-15). Planning on making enough money to return to school in the fall for a degree in nursing and counselling, Taylor instead finds herself struggling to pull in enough salmon to buy fuel, ice, and groceries: “the gods and the government had conspired to set a deadly stage: no fish, terrible weather, closure, strikes, cutbacks, rocketing interest rates and falling fish prices. People took bigger and bigger risks, hoping for the miracle that would pay their mortgage and feed their kids. Many would drown in debt, in liquor, in despair” (147). It is this intertwining of startlingly frank memoir and eulogy for a way of life dying before Taylor’s eyes that gives this slim volume a depth of character that is both insightful and heartily enjoyable.

Taylor pulls no punches in 200 pages of prose that is, in turns, wry, rough, and lyrical. Deaths, gruesome injuries, near-capsizings, fear, homesickness, and domestic disputes lie tangled up with the mundanities and glories of working on a commercial troller. Like its spirited protagonist, the book lacks the discipline of a formal memoir and the chapters have a tendency to dash from directions in drying sockeye, to ruminations on Asian religions, to detailed descriptions of the electrical voltage required to attack different salmon species; throughout, Taylor never seems to finish her thoughts. There is also an occasional slip into the saccharine. However, these stylistic elements lend themselves to a rendition of fishing life as Taylor knew it as a twenty-something greenhorn. In contrast to Inglauer’s measured gait and gentle romance, The Fisher Queen tastes of raw youth, fish guts, salt, stale cigarettes, and bunk sex. This is not to discourage those more interested in the recent history of BC’s salmon fishery than in this rowdy yarn. Throughout the book Taylor brings her readers up to date with the changes that have rocked the commercial salmon fishery since 1981: tightening license regulations, rapid exhaustion of stocks, automation of the lighthouse system, and coast guard cutbacks, all of which are made vivid through Taylor’s account of how they affected the lives of people she loves. An Afterword provides further information on the current state of the commercial salmon fishery, with a focus on the risks posed by the burgeoning sports fishery and salmon aquaculture on the west coast of British Columbia. For those interested, there are even suggestions as to where to buy seafood originating with the fishers and boats of the Thisfish program — whose motto is “Trace your fish.”

Women’s fishing memoirs constitute an emerging genre of west coast writing. In The Fisher Queen, Taylor offers up a powerful and personal remembrance of the fishery with a twist: the experiences and perspectives of a woman deckhand on British Columbia’s wettest and toughest frontier.

REFERENCES:

Inglauer, E. 1988. Fishing with John. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.

Norris, P.W. 2005. High Boats: A Century of Salmon Remembered. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing

The Fisher Queen: A Deckhand’s Tales of the BC Coast
By Sylvia Taylor 

Victoria: Heritage House, 2012. 192 pp. $17.95 paper