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Review

Vancouver: A Novel

By Allison Griffiths

November 4, 2013

Review By Larry Grant

RECENTLY, THERE HAS BEEN a surge in sweeping popular portrayals of Canadian history and its Aboriginal origins, most notably in the CBC production Canada: A People’s History (2000) but also in the current theatrical Vancouver staging of British Columbia’s history in Storyeum as well as the presentation of Vancouver’s history in David Cruise and Allison Griffiths’ Vancouver: A Novel. The latter is an imaginative account constructed from the extensive research of historical evidence linking the various histories of the Aboriginal people and immigrant ethnicities that colour Vancouver today. 

The action begins at the end of the last ice age, about 16,000 years ago, when Tpoke, of African heredity, wanders from Kamchatka into Alaska. He does not know it yet but the green jade beads that he carries provide not only spiritual guidance but also a helpful structure for readers. These beads weave together African, Oriental, and Aboriginal ethnicities and mythologies, appearing and disappearing over the millennia in various of the book’s chapters, to be released once again, in the final chapter, from Stanley Park’s Siwash Rock during an earthquake. This main thread organizes the book’s narrative, as Tooke’s grandchild, Mànto, wanders southward from Alaska, braves a flooding Fraser River, and settles in its delta. Fifteen millennia (and a chapter) later, we observe Manto’s descendants as their chief forces the current keeper of the green beads, Uunutu, to give his pregnant daughter, Gitsula, away as a bride to visiting Nuu-chah-nulth sailors – without disclosing her condition. 

The following chapters trace ever shorter time periods, giving the reader a view into the ethnic mosaic and cultural practices of: a group of Natives who behave quite stereotypically by murdering everybody on one of Juan de Fuca’s ships in English Bay (except for the sailor Mindia Estravi); the wily Darrog Wiley, who saves Fort Langley from a zealous priest and certain destruction at the hands of the Natives; the intertwining businesses of the Chinese Soon Chong and the British Warburton Pike, involving steamship lines, opium, and the Chinese mafia; an enterprising Nanak Singh from India, who sets up the first farms in the Fraser Valley; and the adventure-seeking German Konrad von Schaumberg, who ends up dabbling in real estate, a narrative cue for 1960s penny stocks and the father-daughter stock-promoter team of the Dolbys. Finally, with Salish Ellie Nesbitt in today’s Vancouver, the novel turns full circle as we find the green beads at Siwash Rock. 

The novel portrays, quite realistically, British colonialism and the many European and Asian immigrants who view Vancouver and its surroundings as a land of opportunity, wanting to exploit natural resources, acquire land, speculate, become rich, and retire. The rugged individualism of these immigrant entrepreneurs will likely appeal to the novel’s non-Aboriginal audience. Aboriginal readers will appreciate some quite wonderful descriptions of cultural practices, for example, the ingenuity involved in salmon fishing (199). However, the writing also reveals many (Western) misconceptions of Aboriginal culture. Foremost among these, the Salish tribes are portrayed as quite independent and as competing with each other. However, genealogy shows that tribes were (and are) tightly linked through intermarriage and kinship ties. Similarly, terms such as “chief” (e.g., 88) suggest domineering rulership, ignoring the Salish family-based system in which the family that is most beneficial towards the community proffers its “headman” or “headwoman” to negotiate consensus between a tribe’s different families without alienating anyone. A tribal headperson could not possibly give away a woman (e.g., Gitsula) from another family, nor would s/he dare to hide Gitsula’s pregnancy from the feared Nuu-chah-nulth visitors. One more point: these visitors are said to paddle their eighty-foot-long seagoing canoes with a mere eleven men (104) – at least twenty men would be required just to get such a boat past the Saanich currents, let alone across the Strait. 

These misconceptions are just a few of many examples. In addition, the authors appear to draw from historical accounts that are refashioned and fictionalized to fit a Vancouver context (e.g., Mindia Estravi’s English Bay murder account is reminiscent of John R. Jewitt’s experiences in Nootka Sound as recounted in White Slaves of Maquinna: Narrative of the Adventures and Suffering of John R. Jewitt [2000]). For knowledgeable readers, such blurrings of place and action can make the reading interesting and, at the same time, frustrating. It is true that the book is identified as a novel, but since it incorporates a lot of historical details readers may not always remember that it is fictional. This may be a problem for a young Aboriginal readership that, in the (traditional) absence of written Aboriginal histories, might find some Eurocentric representations confusing. Aside from this serious caveat, the book is an entertaining read, providing a running history of Vancouver’s dynamic formation and suggesting many millennia of evidence for Aboriginal life in Vancouver.