Up-Coast: Forests and Industry on British Columbia’s North Coast. 1870-2005
November 4, 2013
Review By Duff Sutherland
The southern interior of British Columbia is a landscape woven together by stories, from the geological chronicles of glaciers and mountains to the almost mute presences of kekuli pits, abandoned cabins, and weathered fence lines poised against the newer hypertexts of vineyards and organic farms. I’ve visited almost every museum in the region and learned to pay attention to the way communities choose to present the evidence of long occupation. There are almost always cases of fossils, a collection of Native baskets with their own intricate narratives (some almost indecipherable as imbrication grasses and barks fade over time), a gold pan, a plough or a harness, helmets from the Great War, sometimes a mineshaft reconstructed in the dim display room or a collection of old saws, and, of course, the photographic displays that offer their poignant tableaux.
In a way, Gerry William’s novel is a synthesis of all these stories but from a new and original perspective, one located in the sere grasslands and pine forests of the Okanagan Valley just at the point of contact between the syilx, or First Nations people, and sha-mas (white settlers), priests, and others who came to settle the valley. Versions of this contact are known from the records of Father Charles Pandosy, the Oblate missionary who established the first permanent non-Aboriginal settlement in the valley in 1859; and from the recollections, often a generation or two removed, of men like Tom Ellis, “The Cattle King of the Okanagan.” But the quiet missing voices have been those of the people whose residency in a richly complex landscape was altered and displaced. We’re beginning to hear more of those voices. I think of some of the texts published by Theytus Books and Wendy Wickwire’s transcriptions of stories by the great Okanagan storyteller, Harry Robinson. And now we have Gerry William’s strange and beautiful novel.
It is not a linear narrative, and, in that respect, it confounds the reader who might expect a formal plot-driven novel. Stories begin: a brigade cavalcade on its way to Fort Hope encounters a Native camp. Violence is done not only to people but to the carefully prepared food caches and the camp dogs. This particular story continues for a time and then changes, as weather changes. We are introduced to Enid Blue Starbreaks, the Woman in the Trees, whom we are told comes from “the other side of creation” (18). She appears to very few people, an abiding spirit with the power to rescue children in trouble, to console and to frighten. There is also the story of Wolverine, a child born to Blue Dreams and Sky Woman, who communicates with an imals in their own language and who never stops watching. His is the generation taken by the priests and taught English and the lessons of the Bible; quick to learn and quick to reject, Wolverine goes his own way and becomes, eventually, an intermediary between settlers who arrive to ranch and those who hope to create a version of Eden in the Okanagan Valley with apple trees brought from the east. This thread is vivid and resonant and involves a small-scale water war, brief meditations on weather cycles (particularly of interest to those charting the rate of global warming), and a considerable amount of relevant ethnobotanical material.
One important element in this novel is the animating presence of Coyote, or Sn-klip, who says, “There are fifty ways to tell the beginning of everything, but only one ending. I was there when my people saw the first horse … My way has no straight path to anywhere. No easy river sand to throw into the wind” (122). This teasing approach to narrative asks us to be flexible in our reading, to adapt to changes in points of view and voice as an animal might respond to obstacles in a path – go around, go through, go under. And we have an admirable guide after all: “He’s rude, he’s crude, he’s a joker. He mocks and he questions … His name is Sn-klip, and in one way, he is the story that follows, and every story that’s told” (125).
In some ways, for example, in its machinery and cast, The Woman in the Trees resembles an epic poem. We are plunged into a world of action and consequence, where the gods oversee and interject in the affairs of mortals. As in the Odyssey, for instance, there is an intersection of mythology and history, of past and present activity, of heroic action and domestic quietude. Walking Grizzly Bear’s summoning of the tribes to plan strategy to deal with the sha-mas, or white settlers, and Blue Dream’s proficiency with a bow – “His aim stayed true, and he could hit a thin trunk from forty paces, five times out of six” (67) – carry with them echoes of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The themes of William’s novel are archetypal and resonate within the rich tradition of world literature.
The Woman in the Trees is an important document, not only for its value as literature (and that is significant) but also for its ability to do what those museums in small Interior towns seldom succeed in doing. Gerry William has woven together archival materials – history, fiction, poetry, geology, and the long genealogies of the Okanagan – to create a durable and evocative artefact that tells the story of not only what we knew, in part, but also, and more important, of what has been hidden from us, in plain view.