Posts Tagged ‘British Columbia’

Here’s another excellent travel memoir from Lorna Whishaw, re-posted from October 2012 specially for my long-distance friend Susan. One to search out once you’ve gone with Lorna to Alaska!

Mexico Unknown by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1962. This edition: Hammond and Hammond, 1962. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10 for sheer admiration of the cheek of this mid-20th-century intrepid traveller, plus for the extreme readability of her prose. If even half of this is true – and apparently, it all is, with some allowances for dramatic presentation – Lorna Whishaw gets my nod for the “Forge Ahead Regardless and Don’t Make a Fuss” award. Shaking my head and smiling, thinking of her adventures – in this case not an exaggeration of term. She loses .5 for not telling more. Infuriating book, because it’s such a teaser.

Lorna Whishaw only wrote two books – this one plus the earlier (published in 1958)  As Far as You’ll Take Me . She barely lifted the veil on her fascinating life and many travels. Probably too busy living to sit down and write about most of it!

I did find record of a third piece of Lorna’s writing, her Master’s Thesis for the University of British Columbia Department of Creative Writing, a 1212 page (really? possibly a pagination misprint) work titled Blue Kootenay, published 1985. Most intriguing. I wonder what the possibilities of somehow accessing that one are? I’m thinking fairly slim.

*****

Of my own free will I would not choose to live in Mexico, any more than I would take up residence at the bottom of a tropical sea, because I do not belong there, because I am not wanted there, and because Mexico can get along very well without me. But because through the Will of God I live in Mexico, I shall write of it, of day-by-day living in a land of vast beauty, of violence, and savage extremes, where the struggle of maintaining life is more terrible than death; a land which is trampled by the tourist with sightless eyes.

I have heard Lorna Whishaw’s two memoirs referred to, in her B.C. BookWorld biographical entry*, as creative non-fiction, and I suspect that she distanced herself somewhat from her narratives by tweaking names and certain personal details, and in her portrayal of order of events. There is no question that she was a real person, that she did travel widely and adventureously and that she based her books solidly in fact.

Lorna Whishaw’s perspective is at once soberly analytical and deeply personal. I am finding her writing intelligent and vivid; Mexico Unknown in particular is a unique work which rewards the reader in multiple ways. Sincerely passionate, continually smile-provoking, and unusually thought-provoking. Plus she was just a damned good writer, and not one mite afraid to voice her opinions in print, though it appears she was capable of maintaining a tactful silence when required in her real life.

On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.

The Mexican experience starts with the culture shock of the border towns, and then the physical shock of the amenity-less workers’ community of a struggling Sierra Madre mine. The first half of the book is a dramatic tale of love and death, corruption and betrayal, nobility of character and inner joy found in the most unlikely people.

The portraits of the Mexicans and the American and European mine foremen, technicians and investors are generously but ruthlessly drawn with an artist’s flair for capturing personality and mood in a few well chosen words. The physical descriptions of the land and people are as good as photographs; I find myself perfectly able to picture each face and scene; an unusually difficult authorial feat to pull off as well as Whishaw consistently does.

Disaster strikes La Fortuna Mine, and the scene abruptly changes to Mazatlan, where the suddenly unemployed and quite broke family reassess their situation. The geologist husband goes off with the last of the ready money to attend job interviews, while the wife and daughter camp on the deserted beaches, invisible to the lavish tourist enclaves just down the coast.

A new job is found in a silver mine in Zacatecas in central Mexico,

…a rolling land, arid and beautiful, a vast panorama of golden grass rimmed by oil blue mountains; of joshua trees, lovely in scant clumps, but frightening assembled as they are sometimes to cover the land…as they march to the horizon black with their myriads…

and a life of relative luxury is settled into; school for the daughter, and endless days of lounging by the swimming pool, gossiping with fellow expatriate wives, and riding out in the surrounding countryside.

On to Guadalajara and then Mexico City, where the family experiences the major July 28, 1958 earthquake, then the geologist goes on to Nicaragua, while the other two return briefly to Canada, where a new car, a British-built Ford Zephyr convertible, is purchased and driven from British Columbia through the U.S.A., through Mexico and, over a technically “non-existent” road through the jungle,  into central America. That trip is a saga all of its own, tacked on to this crowded tale as almost an afterthought.

The family is reunited yet again, only to discover that the Nicaragua job is being curtailed, and though by this time Canada is looking wonderfully attractive, Mexico is again the next destination…

And here I should end this story, but something happened on our drive to the mine on that black and silver night, that should be told. On the trail, lying insolent and beautiful under the headlights we saw two jaguars. Tony stopped the truck a few feet from them, and we watched in ecstasy as they rose and moved slowly away into the bush, throwing flaming glares towards us as they went.

‘Fancy’, Mary said. ‘Jaguars in driving distance from Canada.’

The End

*****

Fancy.

Indeed!

Did I saw “highly recommended” yet? I’m sure I did, but I’ll say it again. This is why I love used book stores, and glorious vintage books.

*****

* B.C. BookWorld, 1992:

Born in Riga, Latvia to British parents in the diplomatic corps, Lorna Whishaw grew up in England and came to B.C. in 1947. She has lived in many countries, including South Africa where she worked on behalf of the civil rights movement. She speaks six languages and has published two books of creative non-fiction, As Far as You’ll Take Me (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958) and Mexico Unknown (London, 1962). With degrees in French, English and Philosophy, she has taught for East Kootenay Community College in Golden and Cranbrook. She lives in Windermere.

Lorna Whishaw died in 1999.

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A commentor has just referred to this grand travel memoir which I first read and wrote about in 2012. Re-posting, because it is an enthralling account, as unique as the woman who lived it and wrote about it.

As Far As You’ll Take Me by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1958. This edition: Hammond, Hammond & Co., 1959. Hardcover. 222 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

One summer in the 1950s, while her geologist husband was off an a 3-month, “no wives allowed” prospecting trip, Lorna Whishaw left her Kootenay Lake farm and her 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son in the care of a neighbour’s retired ex-nanny mother and hitch-hiked to Alaska and back. This is the account of that journey, and of some of the people Lorna met.

Her husband, apologetic that Lorna could not accompany him on this trip as she had on many others, suggested that she go on an adventure of her own, until the time of his return when they could go off on a family trip together. She mulled over his suggestion, and went so far as to engage the efficient Mrs. Clements (to whom the book is dedicated), but then dreams the weeks away until…

One morning, as I lay watching the dawn on the mountains, I knew that the time had come. And that it had to be a hiking trip. Naturally, I was unprepared. I had expected to take weeks making plans and packing, but suddenly it was time to go and I had not even been into town to the bank.

I scoured the house for money until I had collected thirty-six dollars, mostly from winter pockets. I filled a packboard and a huge sack with all sorts of unsuitable effects. Anything, in fact, I could lay hands on without waking Mrs. Clements. In the end I had collected: two pairs of jeans, one pair of faded blues and some shorts, two cotton shirts, two short-sleeved sweaters, one fisherman’s sweater, three pairs of woollen socks, some crimson skijamas, three changes of underwear, a short fisherman’s slicker and four coloured kerchiefs to tie around the neck.

From the kitchen I stole a small Revere saucepan and frying pan, a silver spoon and fork, an aluminum pie plate, a plastic mug, two pounds of coffee, two pounds of rice, some bacon, salt, pepper and a huge chunk of cheese.

On top of this I stuffed in my sleeping bag, which weighed as much as the cheese, and a ground sheet…

After bidding goodbye to Mrs. Clements, and peeking in on her still-sleeping children, Lorna heads down the road, picking up a ride almost immediately with a well-wisher who warns Lorna about the dangers of the road, but ends with a “Wish I was going with you!” good luck parting. Into the line-up for the Kootenay Lake ferry, and Lorna picks up her first real ride, with a trucker headed to Vancouver. He gets her as far as the MacLeod junction, giving her tips on truck driver-passenger etiquette which will stand her in good stead her whole trip. Past the point of no return, Lorna mulls over her next move.

I turned northward, up the long straight road which seemed to touch the horizon and climb into the pink evening sky. Till that moment I had not really given much thought to the direction I would take. For many years I had dreamed of the far north. It was a dream which I had never allowed to take hold, but it was always with me. Standing in the golden sunset at the start of the flat grey road, I felt an overwhelming desire to go north. I had the time and I had thirty-six dollars. With luck I might actually realize my dream – Alaska and the Yukon!

And, by golly, she does indeed realize her dream. Cadging a series of rides with truckers and tourists and farmers and other good-hearted souls, she makes it all the way to Alaska, where she finds further adventure in trips into the wilderness through the kindness of strangers who quickly become friends. It is not all fun and laughter; many of her drivers and hosts have tragic pasts and difficult presents; Lorna herself has several brushes with disaster and makes some very poor decisions, which she pays for in real danger and frequent discomfort. She always pushes through, though, with a combination of luck and bull-headed resolve.

This was an understated but nicely written road trip saga. I found myself fully engaged and reluctant to put the book down, reading far into the night until my eyes closed on their own. Lorna’s voice is cool, calm and collected, and her dry sense of humour is apparent throughout. I am so glad I stumbled upon this memoir; this is my second reading of it and it is even better the second time around, as I found I slowed down in my reading and really savoured her descriptions and impressions of the country she was travelling through.

Lorna herself must have been as much of a unique character as any of the long-distance truck drivers, game wardens, and Yukon and Alaskan prospectors, lodge owners and fellow adventurers she met. According to scant but intriguing biographical information I tracked down, Lorna Hall was born in 1912 in Riga, Latvia, to British diplomatic corps parents. She grew up in England, but travelled widely, marrying pilot and mining engineer Quentin Whishaw and living in many countries, including South Africa, where she apparently worked on behalf of the civil rights movement, and also as a linguist for the “secret service”, according to her son Ian’s biographical notes. Lorna spoke six languages, and had degrees in French, English and Philosophy.

She moved to the Kootenay Lake region of British Columbia with her family in 1947, and lived in Windermere until her death in 1999. Apparently she only wrote two books, both travel memoirs: As Far As You’ll Take Me in 1958, and Mexico Unknown, in 1962. A real shame; I wish she had published more of her memoirs; from the glimpses of her life she shares in As Far As You’ll Take Me she is definitely a person whom I’d like to hear more from.

There were a few copies of both books on ABE, most quite reasonably priced the last time I checked. If you see a copy of either travel memoir in a second-hand bookshop, I would recommend you grab it, if you think you might enjoy reading of the solo travels of a strong, independent woman with a deep appreciation of other people and the natural world.

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This space has been very quiet lately, and there is the happy reason why, as mid-September brought a rare chance to get away from work and the farm for a few weeks, and with that escape, a time away from the computer.

My husband and I are, as some of you already know, the proud possessors of a 1971 Triumph Spitfire (among a number of other vintage “project cars”, of which the less said perhaps the better, the old sports car interest being something of a joint secret life which we try to keep a low profile about, as it bemuses most of our friends) and once in a while we go all out and take her for a serious run.

Abandoning numerous pressing projects, we took part in a 3-day vintage sports car rally which started in Kelowna, progressed through southern interior B.C.’s Monashee Mountains, and ended southwest of Kamloops at the Quilchena Hotel on the Douglas Lake Ranch.

We had a well-timed breakdown on travel-to-the-rally-start day, and with the aid of a serendipitous series of exceedingly helpful old-British-car buffs and an early morning mechanical session in our hotel parking lot, we got Baby put back together again. That out of her system, she ran like a charm for the next 3 days, bringing us home again after better than 1000 miles of top-down driving under mostly sunny skies.

Sometimes things are better than anticipated. This trip was one of those. It was utterly perfect.

One of my favourite views - looking out over the Spitfire bonnet. The only better place is behind the wheel! Here we are heading towards Vernon, B.C., on Day 1 of a vintage car rally we participated in September 19-21.

One of my favourite views – looking out over the Spitfire bonnet. The only better place is behind the wheel. Here we are heading down the highway towards Vernon, B.C., on Day 1 of our 3-day rally. On the other side of Vernon we head off into the mountains, onto frequently narrow, highly scenic, beautifully curve-filled rural roads – perfect for our treasured cars to show off what they were really built for. Completely frivolous creations, but a whole lot of fun.

Day 3, with our Spit in the foreground as we all converge for a final meet-up and meal before going our separate ways.

Day 3, with our Spit in the foreground in the parking area of Douglas Lake Ranch’s historic Quilchena Hotel as we all begin to converge for a final meet-up and meal before going our separate ways, to points throughout B.C, with a few hardy souls heading home to Alberta and down into Washington State. (This is less than a third of the group – sadly I did not get a shot of all of us together – and it was a nicely eclectic group, with our working-class, 4-cylinder Spitfire on the lower end of the sports car hierarchy and a stunning 1955 Jaguar – red car, 5th in line – representing the posher end of the scale.)

We made it home, hastily parked the Spit without giving her the usual post-run wash-and-brush-up, and spent the next day frantically packing up our old camper in order to take our daughter on the trip to the ocean we’d promised her in the spring. “C’mon, let’s do this, it may be my last trip with you,” she kept saying, piling on a bit of the kids-all-grown-up angst on our parental heads, and though it was rather odd being a trio in the camper instead of a quartet – her older brother, now mostly moved out, came home and kindly farm-sat for us – it ended up being a very pleasant trip.

The weather had turned, bringing wind, cool weather, and rain, but we forged on regardless, and though we came home rather more exhausted than when we left, we’re glad we made the effort.

Beach walks, conversation, peaceful evenings, books. We then left the ocean more or less behind, and spent a day in Victoria, where we took in the Swedish History Museum’s touring Viking exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum, and joined the tourist throng queuing for chocolates at the venerable Rogers Family confectionary store, before heading for the ferry line-up, and the long trek home.

It was great fun to get away, but it feels very good to be back. All of our projects are here still waiting for us – darn! – why couldn’t those have done themselves while we were gone?! – but we’re all the happier for our two weeks away.

And here are some photos from the trip, a very small sampling of where we went and what we saw.

The next post will be back to books – the pile of to-be-talked-about has grown to ridiculous proportions. I think a round-up post or two may be in order.

Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, western side of Vancouver Island. Next landfall, Japan.

Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, western side of Vancouver Island. Next landfall, Japan.

A storm just passed, and the setting sun appears briefly.

Same stretch of beach. A storm has just passed, and the setting sun appears briefly. The swell is immense; we are being very careful, as the day before another beach walker was almost swept away by a rogue wave.

Pink sea urchins, tide pool, upper Long Beach. No sea stars, though the rocks show grazed areas where they were abundant on all of our previous visits to this particular group of rocks and pools, a sad disappointment. Over 95% of the sea star population between Alaska and California has suddenly died off since late winter, 2014, due to a suspected viral disease thought to be exacerbated by warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures.

Pink sea anemones, tide pool, upper Long Beach. No sea stars, though the rocks show grazed areas where they were abundant on all of our previous visits to this particular group of rocks and pools, a sad disappointment. Over 95% of the sea star population between Alaska and California has suddenly died off since late winter, 2014, due to a suspected viral disease thought to be exacerbated by warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures.

Empty beaches, just us and the birds most days...a storm system out at sea has just passed, leaving the wave danger rating at extreme, and keeping the hardy wet-suited surfers who generally frequent these shores holed up in their various retreats.

More empty beaches, just us and the birds most days…a major storm system out at sea has just passed, leaving the wave danger rating at extreme, and keeping the hardy wet-suited surfers who generally frequent these shores holed up in their various retreats.

Finally the waves subside enough for some surfer action. This brave soul was up a few times, but never for long. Hard work for a few moments of catching the wave!

Finally, several days after the highest storm surges of the year to date, the waves subside enough for some surfer action. This brave soul was up a few times, but never for long. Awfully hard work for a few moments of catching the wave!

Misty morning sunrise.

Misty morning sunrise.

Blue heron, low tide.

Blue heron, low tide.

As inland dwellers, this sort of thing leaves us thrilled to the core: what an incredibly rich thing is the sea!

As inland dwellers, this sort of thing leaves us thrilled to the core: what an incredibly rich thing is the sea!

And then there's wonderful stuff like this: urchins and anemones at Ucluelet.

And then there’s wonderful stuff like this: urchins and anemones at Ucluelet.

Sea isles off Ucluelet, seen from a viewpoint on the Wild Pacific Walking Trail.

Sea isles off Ucluelet. Rather makes one dream of setting up a hermitage on one of those to escape the woes of the human world…or, thinking a little harder of the lack of arable land for even a wee garden, and the constant rain and sea roar, maybe not…

Mildly eerie but decidedly cheery: dwellers in the rainforest at Tofino Botanical Garden.

Mildly eerie but decidedly cheery: dwellers in the rainforest at Tofino Botanical Garden.

Heading down island, into some welcome sunshine, which lights up the evening waves at French Beach, near Jordan River. We sat on the rocks in the sunset and watched three sea otters frolicking in the kelp beds as the tide turned and started rolling in.

Heading down island, into some welcome sunshine, which lit up the evening waves at French Beach, near Jordan River. We sat on the rocks in the sunset and watched three sea otters frolicking in the kelp beds as the tide turned and started rolling in.

Into the city, to do the tourist thing in Victoria, our province's capitol city. Totem poles in Thunderbird Park, with the stately Victorian Empress Hotel in the background.

Into the city, to do the tourist thing in Victoria, our province’s capitol. Totem poles in Thunderbird Park, with the stately Victorian-era Empress Hotel in the background.

City botanizing: fall-blooming cyclamen in a quiet corner of Victoria's Beacon Hill Park.

City botanizing: fall-blooming cyclamen in a quiet corner of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park.

 

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To be filed under “There’s always something…” or perhaps “Never a dull moment down on the farm…” , today we had some serious excitement here in our valley. A freight train came through (the rail tracks run through our farm and down the valley, following the Fraser River) and had some brake issues. Sparks from the dragging wheels set a number of fires through our neighbours’ farms and ranches; luckily it just missed us, but it was rather, umm, interesting when we saw the smoke columns, just before the fire crews showed up. (Very quickly, I am happy to say.)

It’s being held at bay this evening, after some seriously intense work by two big retardant bombers and their spotter planes, plus three helicopters with buckets dipping water out of the river. Fingers crossed that the wind doesn’t pick up. Here are a few pictures taken from a neighbour’s lawn a few hours ago, as we stood around watching and formulating “what to take” plans as the trees on the ridge burst into flame, just before the bombers nailed the fire margin on our side.

july 13 2014 fire at soda creek

The “bird dog” plane sets the path for the bomber – you can just see him heading out at the top right of the picture.

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Pass after pass after pass…

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…for which we are all exceedingly grateful. Our tax dollars at work, as we joked to each other as we watched, but no one’s going to argue about this use of our public funds.

After the bombers left to refill their tanks, the helicopters took over, targetting hot spots.

When the bombers left to refill their tanks, the helicopters took over, targetting hot spots.

And so to bed, to sleep rather lightly, I suspect.

The ground crews were just setting up this evening; they’ll be here for at least a few days until everything is under control. Could still get away if the wind picks up, but we are all below the fire on the slope so feeling pretty good about things, as fires tend to burn “up” the hillsides.

A bit too hot, this particular summer day, don’t you agree?

Edited to add these, sent by a neighbour on the other side of the ridge. Despite the nearness of the flames to the buildings, all people, houses, and livestock are safe. A very close thing, and not over yet.

Ranch buildings shrouded in smoke. Irrigation sprinklers moved to protect structures just visible.

Ranch buildings shrouded in smoke as the flames burn up the hillside. Irrigation sprinklers were moved in to protect structures.

Looking upriver from the south over our valley and the two main fire areas. We are well away to the north, several miles past the furthest smoke column.

Looking upriver from the south over our valley and the two main fire areas. We are safely to the north, past the furthest smoke column. Two neighbour ranches are directly involved, with fires still burning tonight across the railway tracks from the buildings. They won’t be getting too much sleep, I’m afraid…

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There's a light at the end of the tunnel... in this case, that would be the extremely cool (literally) abandoned Othello railway tunnels near Hope, British Columbia. Yes, we've been travelling! Not too far away from home, just touristing in the backyard, as it were. This is about 5-ish hours driving hours from home, not counting numerous stops.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel… in this case, that would be the extremely cool (literally) abandoned Othello railway tunnels near Hope, British Columbia. Yes, we’ve been travelling! Not too far away from home, just touristing in the backyard, as it were. (This is about 5-ish hours driving hours from home, not counting numerous stops to get up close and personal with the roadside flora. Marvelous botanizing this time of year, especially as it has been rather more wet than usual and the wildflowers are very happy.) Couldn’t resist sharing this photo of my travelling companions, heading out into the light while I lingered behind, trying to hold the camera still enough for a steady(ish) shot.

The dry, sagebrush-covered hills south of Cache Creek, B.C. were alive with the ephemeral blooms of Bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva. Fragile, ephemeral, and extremely beautiful.

The dry, sagebrush-covered hills south of Cache Creek, B.C. were alive with the ephemeral blooms of Bitter-root, Lewisia rediviva. Fragile, ephemeral, and extremely beautiful. Just a sample of the wonderful flowers we encountered.

And the scenery was pretty incredible, too. Here's the locally famous "Spotted Lake" near Osoyoos, B.C. (just north of the United States border). Crystalline salt pans in perfectly rounbd formation; a sacred First Nations site as well as an interesting natural phenomenon.

And the scenery was pretty incredible, too. Here’s the locally famous “Spotted Lake” near Osoyoos, B.C. (just north of the United States border). Crystalline salt pans in perfectly round formation; a sacred First Nations site as well as an interesting natural phenomenon.

And then there was the fauna. Like these guys. Bighorn sheep near Kamloops, B.C.

And then there was the fauna. Like these guys. Bighorn sheep near Kamloops, B.C.

Blue skies, dry hills, and lush farms in the valleys where the rivers and streams provide welcome irrigation water. This is near Keremeos, B.C., an area of orchards and vineyards - the fruit basket of B.C.

Blue skies, dry hills, and lush farms in the valleys where the rivers and streams provide welcome irrigation water. This is near Keremeos, B.C., an area of orchards and vineyards – the fruit basket of B.C.

What a very full week or so this has turned out to be. I won’t go into details, but it has been packed with eventful things. Mostly good, I am happy to say.

Just home for two days, then off again tomorrow to the Provincial Performing Arts Festival in Penticton, with happy anticipation of the pleasures to come of watching and listening and marveling at the talented young musicians, singers and dancers from all over B.C. who converge once a year to represent their local festivals, to perform, compete, take master classes and workshops, and delight their audiences with their passion and mastery of their chosen arts.

I’ll be back to the books soon, once I stop moving.

I can’t quite believe that May has come to a close so quickly; that now we are in June! Blink, and a day goes by…

Hope you are all having a lovely spring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The view out the window upon arrival at UBC last week - what's up with the SNOW?!

The view out the window upon arrival at UBC last week – what’s up with the SNOW?!

The last part of February passed in an absolute blur, and I’ve been away from the blog completely but for brief moments to reply to comments. But I’m back, and life promises to settle down a bit after the recent flurry, and my stack of to-discuss books is frighteningly tall. I’ll get back to my blogging routine very soon – I’ve missed you all!

Claire – I did make it to Vancouver, but it was literally a flying visit – I was there two days, visited Van Dusen and the UBC garden in the snow, stopped in at three bookstores – Pulp Fiction on Main (which I found well-organized but very high priced) and Lawrence Books on Dunbar (which was gloriously overstuffed and a bit chaotic, also very high-priced, but full of treasures) and of course the excellent Pages (now renamed) in Hope on the way home. That cup of tea – next time!

I came to Vancouver for a glimpse of green grass, but sadly found lots and lots of SNOW instead – but at least it wasn’t minus 25C like it was at home!

Multiple vet visits with our elderly dog, including one rather costly surgery (she’s recovered brilliantly – what a tough old girl she is), and minor surgery for one of the humans (three wisdom teeth removed – the person in question is in looks-like-chipmunk recovery mode today), and the regional dance festival ate up vast chunks of my time these past two weeks, but things are easing up a bit.

We have a two-day Vocal and Choral Festival to get through this coming weekend, but it promises to be a gentle diversion after the high-energy Dance Festival, and I am looking forward to just sitting back and listening to the music, in between my not-very-arduous duties as the local Provincial Festival representative. Kevin Zakresky, choral director of the Vancouver Symphony, Prince George Symphony, and Pacifica Singers, is our Vocal adjudicator, and it sounds like he will be a lot of fun, so very much looking forward to that.

I shall soon be back posting away as usual – I have been reading some very interesting books, which I’m keen to share thoughts on.

Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver, February 24, 2014 - There are spring flowers out there, buried for the most part under the unexpected snow.

Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver, February 24, 2014 – There are spring flowers out there – really! – I saw glimpses of them – buried for the most part under the unexpected snow. A very beautiful botanical garden, under any conditions.

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monkey beach eden robinsonMonkey Beach by Eden Robinson ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0676973221. 377 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson.

Part of the time (most of the time) the words flow effortlessly and reading them is like riding the crest of a perfect wave; occasionally the reader is tumbled out of complacence and, gasping a bit from the shock, needs to go back over what has just been read, to readjust to what’s just been thrown at you.

This would have been a solid 10, but I docked the half point because the story fell into cliché right near the end, after brilliantly flouting expectations most of the way through.

Picking snippets at random from the first page of a Google search on Monkey Beach yields these comments: “(C)ombines both joy and tragedy in a harrowing yet restrained story of grief and survival…”; “(F)illed with intense landscapes…”; “(A)ddresses issues related to race, historic oppression, and the clash between cultures in a coming-of-age ghost story…”; “(A) story about childhood, family, loss, grief and life on a 21st century Native-Canadian reserve…”

Ooh, sounds all deep and Can-Lit dark, doesn’t it? But the story transcends these sound-bite assessments. Already at the bottom of the first page I couldn’t look away; I read eagerly to the end (flagging just a little when the author stubbed her toe on the possible-but-slightly-contrived reason for her brother’s motivations regarding that trip out onto the ocean); completely accepted the rather vague ending scenario (who’s really alive? dead? what does it all mean?); and eagerly pressed it into my husband’s hands: “You must read this book!” (And he did, and he loved it, too.)

A surprisingly funny and, yes, cheerful (in places) sort of book for all of the tragedies it describes.

The internet is seething with reviews on this one; I missed it when it first came out, but apparently it was a Giller Prize finalist and a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2000. It apparently made quite a stir, and in the thirteen years since first publication has become a Can-Lit high school/college standard; likely because (cynicism alert!) of its First Nations author, characters, and themes. And (of course!) because it’s a well-written and cleverly complex tale; lots of room for exploration, and the generation of many words of student “analysis”.

I was going to give you a quickie overview, but instead I’m about to cheat big time and refer you to the Canadian Literature Quarterly of Spring 2001, to the article Beauty and Substance by Jennifer Andrews, which nicely sums things up.

Eden Robinson’s Giller-Prize nominated Monkey Beach … [creates] a darkly comic narrative about the life of Lisamarie Hill, a woman who returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence in order to cope with the disappearance of her brother, Jimmy. Robinson, a mixed-blood Haisla and Heiltsuk woman raised near the Haisla village of Kitamaat, has previously published a collection of short stories, Traplines (1996), that won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction, and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Like Robinson, the protagonist, Lisamarie—named after Elvis Presley’s daughter—negotiates various worlds while growing up in Kitamaat. She moves between the eclectically traditional ways of her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo, who educates Lisamarie by sharing her passion for television soap operas and teaching her the Haisla language, and the New World activism of her Uncle Mick. A complex web of contradictions, Mick is a survivor of the residential school system, a Native activist who once belonged to the American Indian Movement, a nomad who can never rest, and an Elvis fan whose passion for the “King” knows no bounds. He offers another dimension of experience to Lisamarie by encouraging her to express herself politically. After losing both Mick and Ma-ma-moo, Lisamarie must figure out a way to put her life back together and come to terms with these ghosts from her past.

The novel traces Lisamarie’s journey to discover the fate of her brother, a boat ride that gives her the time and space to recount her story. The narrative is rooted in the beauty and mystery of place, particularly Monkey Beach, a site of family outings and rumoured sasquatch sightings. Robinson’s ability to evoke characters through dialogue and create vivid images of the community, coupled with her awareness of the intricate links between individuals and the land they live on gives the novel a richly layered texture that conveys the significance of Lisamarie’s mixed-blood heritage (Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European). Although the structure of the novel suspends the immediate action of the story, a risky strategy, Robinson’s narrative weaves together multiple plot lines with subtlety and grace, delicately responding to readers’ desire to know the fate of Lisamarie’s brother and the need to recount her past. Moreover, the comic aspects of the novel provide a wonderful counterbalance to the bleakness of Lisamarie’s life, particularly when she ends up living on the streets of East Vancouver. Robinson creates a novel in which humour may lighten the moment but irony ensures that the full weight of tribal histories of colonization and genocide remains a potent force in the text. This is one case in which beauty and substance join together, creating a novel that delivers what it promises.

What else can I add? If you come across this book, pick it up and start reading. If it hooks you, go on. Its early promise holds up remarkably well.

Then, when you’ve read it, check out the author biography and interview at B.C. Book World.

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