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Review

The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture

By Tim Bowling

November 4, 2013

Review By Jocelyn Smith

Tim Bowling, who spent his child-hood on the west coast of British Columbia and now lives in Edmonton, is perhaps better known as a poet than a prose writer. He has published seven collections of poetry, two of which were nominated for the Governor-General’s Literary Award, and three novels. 

The Lost Coast, part memoir, part local history, part supplication for environmental reform, straddles uneasily the gap between prose and poetry. The work is anchored in the summer of 1969, when Apollo 11 became the first manned craft to land on the moon. At the time, Bowling was a young boy growing up in a gillnetting family in Ladner. The landing impressed the boy Bowling and continues to impress the adult; throughout the memoir he returns to it again and again with a wistful nostalgia that reinforces his central contention: everything that happened before 1969, during the first few years of Bowling’s childhood, was good, and everything that has happened since then has been bad. There is no room for disagreement. Of course, that is over-simplifying Bowling’s thesis, but it illustrates the most problematic aspect of this book. A writer must take a position and must advance his thesis, but a writer who ignores the other side of an argument (indeed, who refuses to admit that another side might exist) risks losing credibility. 

Although Bowling might deny that such a formal structure exists in The Lost Coast, the work is divided into two intertwined parts. The beautifully written larger part deals with Bowling’s childhood in Ladner, and in particular with his family. Bowling reaches back into the past and describes not only characters who he knew as a child but also characters from Ladner’s past: the workers in the salmon cannery, the fishermen who supplied the cannery, the Ladner family themselves. Bowling also writes poignantly about the early years of his parents’ marriage, his father’s grand-parents’ attempt to raise bees in Edmonton, and his own grandfather’s war years on the Western Front. One of the most moving passages in the book concerns his mother’s childhood in Toronto.:

“Although she has always been a huge-hearted woman to whom people are drawn for her innate warmth and generosity, my mother is attended by a sorrow more faithful than any servant. Her stories always have about them this fundamental darkness borne out of darkened parlours and rental houses wreathed with black to let the neighbours know of the latest tragedy. As she says about her mother’s life, ‘The midwife was coming in one door as the undertaker was going out the other.’ As she says about her own life, ‘We coped’ (235).” 

If only the whole book were like that! The book’s other theme, however, is the decline of the salmon fishing industry on the west coast. This is clearly the theme that is closer to Bowling’s heart and when he turns to it, his writing shifts from evocative clarity to angry, overwritten hyperbole. “So,” he writes, “I return to the salmon, as always. They haven’t changed, they still drive forward into the same self-destruction and resurrection, little Christs to which no one prays, little canvases that carry inside them their own oils for their own Last Supper” (62-63). And later on: “Tilt. Game over. The earth’s a machine of lights and motion that we’ve been booting hard for well over a century. The old lines of the nations split wide open and menstrual blood gushes out with the roe and salt to flood the classroom floor and seep into the hallways. What shall we do? Shall we manage it?” (143). This is Bowling at his most incensed and also at his least credible. By failing, for example, to talk about the role of fishermen such as his father and older brother (and even his own role: Bowling himself worked as a fisherman until the mid-1990s) in the decline of salmon fishing, he appears partisan, even obsessive, and unwilling to hear counter-arguments. 

The issues that Bowling raises matter. His writing style, especially in the memoir passages, is beautiful and poignant. But his anger at the injustices of the past and the present at times overwhelms and obscures his argument. “Our culture, our tree-cutting, death-denying, conformity-loving culture, shrugs and says, In the past … How to protect the past that trails from me, how to bring it in so I can return to the towhead and set once more with greater knowledge and sensitivity for the weathers of the task, is the real work of the years to come” (108). Yes, but which past does Bowling most want to protect? His grandparents’ past? His own? His children’s (which is his present and future)? Having purged his anger in The Lost Coast, Bowling now needs to be more forthcoming with practical solutions. He must now write a second, supplemental work which shows how he plans to set about the real work of the years to come.