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Review

The Sunshine Coast from Gibsons to Powell River

By Howard White

Texada Tapestry: A History

By Heather Harbord

Edge of Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager

By Jo Hammond

November 4, 2013

Review By Howard Stewart

  

Heather Harbord’s Texada Tapestry: A History is the only one of these three books that calls itself “a history.” Yet together they illustrate the remarkable range of local histories coming out of coastal British Columbia. Jo Hammond’s Edge of the Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager is an intensely personal history of forty years of life, love, and death while chasing stray logs on the shores of Howe Sound. Howard White’s updated The Sunshine Coast From Gibsons to Powell River is another in Harbour’s series of “coffee table books with content” on different regions around the inland sea, and it offers the usual bit of history along with everything else — geography, current affairs, gossip, and just plain interesting tidbits. Together the three tomes present a rich collage of settler life on the east side of the Strait, north of the big smoke.

“Texada Tapestry” is a misnomer; it is more of a well-written patchwork than a tapestry: first a tiny bit of pre-contact Native history and natural history, then a detailed history of resource exploitation on the Strait’s largest island and finally an extensively researched social history. Harbord’s own deep history as a former geology librarian at London’s Royal School of Mines serves her well. The long list of mining and quarrying operations that have transformed the face of Texada Island since the 1880s – iron, gold, copper, limestone – is richly documented. We learn of the overblown “Texada iron scandal” that brought down Premier Amor de Cosmos moments after BC had joined confederation and of the more substantive gold and copper boom that put the town of Van Anda on the map by the turn of the century. Harbord’s descriptions of these and many other mining stories are thoroughly researched and engagingly written. The island’s logging story, though important for the place, is less unique on the shores of the Strait of Georgia than Texada’s prolific mining. The logging section suffers a bit from the author’s greater distance from the subject. Could Texada’s forest industry really be already reaping the benefits of climate change?

On our way through the mining and logging stories we learn a little about the labour and racial tensions that emerged among the island’s often large communities of miners and loggers. But the real social history only starts when we switch to a chronological account of “Texada’s People.” Like the resource history, it is mostly an interesting read that reflects the author’s many interviews with several generations of island people. The division between the mining and logging stories on one hand and the “people’s stories” on the other is too sharply drawn and this is the main weakness of an otherwise well-wrought book. Harbord’s decision to organise her rich material this way is understandable. Turning this patchwork history into an integrated hybrid would have taken considerably more time. Perhaps this will be the second edition?

Jo Hammond, like Heather Harbord, is a transplanted Briton with a “royal” connection (Hammond was in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir). Hammond’s, like Harbord’s, is also a very local history. That’s where the similarities between the two books end. Hammond’s memoir from the “edge of the Sound” is a close-up story of the life of an immigrant woman who meets a local log salvager and then embraces him and his life of pulling valuable stray logs from the chuck. I must admit I never watched the renowned Bruno Gerussi’s version of life as a professional beachcomber on these waters but I suspect that Jo Hammond’s account is rather more accurate. This is a story, as environmental historian Richard White would say, of people who knew their environment through work not play (though there are some fishing and hunting scenes too). There is clearly love for the place, this beautiful western edge of the sound, but it is a place that serves humans and not the other way around; it is not a pristine wilderness to be cherished like brittle china.

Most of the love in Hammond`s story is for a person, not a place. In fact her book reads more like a diary than a memoir and this is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is “herstory” and the story of the love of her life, told not by a great writer but by a woman remembering a rich life shared with one who is suddenly no longer there. Along the way we learn a lot about log salvaging and life on the lower Sechelt Peninsula. Despite a wealth of dialogue the prose is curiously flat in many places. All is forgotten though, in the reader’s fascination with Hammond’s final dialogue, as her now dead husband begins to haunt her amiably with his irrepressible mix of cryptic practical advice and wry humour.

Howard White’s book is a robust and quirky blend of pictures, facts, and anecdotes about the Sunshine Coast meant to help us see the bigger picture amidst a thousand smaller ones, a cosmopolitan sweep all the way from the eastern shore of Howe Sound to the southern reaches of Desolation Sound. It reflects White’s life as a resident of Pender Harbour, square in the middle of the coast he writes about, and his career as editor of the press that has published most of the histories written about it in recent years.

As in this book`s 1996 edition, White has mostly organised his material geographically from Gibsons, Sechelt, Pender Harbour, Jervis Inlet, and Powell River. This distribution betrays his bias in favour of those parts from Jervis Inlet south. Whatever the place, White makes masterful use of the stories of local residents — Natives, writers, loggers, artists, loafers, entrepreneurs, and many more — past and present. Every page is graced with a collection of high-quality colour images that tell their own parallel stories, sometimes related to the text but more often not.

In his long introductory section, White works hard to explain the unique character of this beautiful, convoluted stretch of shoreline. Like many over the years, he prefers to view the redolent histories of great industrial enterprises that have emerged in places like Van Anda, Powell River, and Port Melon as anomalies. He hints that such occasional incursions from the industrial world outside — places where “muckers” will spend their lives — are not true reflections of the trenchantly independent, bohemian, and laid back “loafer” soul of the place. I fear White is indulging in wishful thinking here and that the personality of the place in the 21st century will remain rather more schizophrenic than that. The often damp Sunshine Coast will continue to suffer fits of intense industrialisation of the sort one sees on Malaspina Strait and Howe Sound, cheek by jowl with the anarchistic, artistic, and sybaritic impulses expressed by places like Roberts Creek and Pender Harbour. No, struggles between the muckers and the loafers are not done yet — witness the Sechelt peoples’ inexorable dismantling of the gravelly hills behind town. But this is probably not the right message to incorporate in such a book destined, by its glossy format and despite its many cogent insights, to live far more on coffee tables than in university libraries.

Texada Tapestry: A History
By Heather Harbord
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2011.  $32.95. 288 pages

Edge of the Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager
By Jo Hammond
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2011. $24.95. 272 pages

The Sunshine Coast From Gibsons to Powell River
By Howard White
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. $34.95. 160 pages