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




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.


Pass after pass after pass…


…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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river for my sidewalk gilean douglas 001River for My Sidewalk by Gilean Douglas ~ 1953. Originally published under the pseudonym Grant Madison. This edition: Sono Nis Press, 1984. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919203-41-8. 132 pages.

My rating: 7/10, after some consideration. Some of these short anecdotes and essays are solid 10s, some are not.

I’ve been slightly sidelined with a minor virus these past few days, and the upside is that while I’m just feeling sub-par enough to take a break from most of my more strenuous everyday chores, I’m perfectly able to putter about in the garden, do some gentle weeding, tomato-staking and pruning, watering, and definitely take advantage of the down time to read and type. So, having ambitiously started a number of reviews, I may just get a few more than usual launched in the next day or so. Or perhaps I’ll take advantage of the WordPress feature which allows us to schedule posts for future dates, something I’ve never yet had to do, as there is definitely no backlog of things ready to share! If anything, I frequently post before all of the final tweaking is done, catching typos and awkward phrasings after I’ve hit the “Publish” button. Luckily there is an “Edit” feature, too…

I picked up this particular book at The Final Chapter in Prince George last week, while browsing the excellent Canadiana section. Being rather partial to memoirs in general and British Columbia rural and wilderness settings and history in particular, River for My Sidewalk‘s back cover blurbs pretty well guaranteed my purchase.

About the Author

Gilean Douglas has been a newspaper reporter, copywriter, editor, columnist and, throughout and still, a freelancer. Her work has appeared in numerous periodicals both here and abroad, including Chatelaine, Saturday Evening Post, Canadian Business, Audubon, the New York Times and, by actual count, 144 other periodicals. She has five volumes of poetry to her name, one of light verse, and three nonfiction titles. Four of her poems were set to music and published by Schirmers and others received choral settings and have been performed at [various venues] and in concert. She edited Modern Pioneers for the B.C. Women’s Institute after holding local, district, provincial and national office in that organization.

Gilean Douglas now [in 1984] resides on Cortes Island, where she is a Weather Observer with Environment Canada (receiving four awards for her work) and a Search and Rescue Agent. In her spare time she raises plants, produce, and bulbs.

About the Book

Gilean Douglas spent close to a decade living alone in a small wilderness cabin in the Cascade mountains. River for My Sidewalk, first edition, was originally published…in October of 1953, under the male pseudonym of Grant Madison. The reading public of that time would have doubted the authenticity of a woman managing in the circumstances described. But Gilean Douglas did more than manage, she thrived in the isolation and completeness that solitude brings. Well before the days of liberated females, Ms. Douglas chose, lived, survived, and savoured a self-sufficient existence in an area that is still considered wild and inaccessible. Her story is timeless and the observations are lyrically clear…

Gilean Douglas: Naturalist, feminist, farmer, poet, author.

Gilean Douglas: Naturalist, feminist, farmer, poet, author.

Well, I’d never heard of the woman myself, but who could resist finding out more? And, after reading River for My Sidewalk, I did just that. What an absolutely fascinating woman Gilean Douglas must have been! And not just fascinating, but, for all of her quirks and her unhappy history with husbands, apparently much admired and beloved by her friends and neighbours. Here is an excerpt from a longer biography in B.C. Bookworld:

Gilean Douglas, author of River for My Sidewalk (1953), was a female Thoreau of Canada. A loner from a well-to-do family, she retreated to wilderness cabins and became an environmentalist before the word existed, leaving four marriages behind her.

Gilean Douglas, born in Toronto in 1900, was orphaned at age 16 and soon became a reporter. She travelled extensively prior to her arrival in B.C. in 1938 where she first lived in a cabin on the Coquihalla River. She then moved to an abandoned miner’s shack on the Teal River near Duncan, B.C. “It was the great moment of my life when I waded the Teal River,” she wrote, “with my packboard on my back and stood at last on my own ground. I can never describe the feeling that surged up inside me then. . . I felt kinship in everything around me, and the long city years of noise and faces were just fading photographs.” Subsisting mainly on produce from her garden, Douglas began to write about her adventures but could not find acceptance as a woman writing about outdoor life. Adopting the male pseudonym Grant Madison did the trick—and she published River For My Sidewalk, her best-known book.

Gilean Douglas continued to use her male name until 1983 when she revealed herself in a Vancouver Sun interview. Douglas next moved to Cortes Island, near Campbell River. “I have spoken many times of ‘my land’ and ‘my property’, but how foolish it would be of me to believe that I possessed something which cannot be possessed,” she once wrote. Along with seven poetry books, she produced two more meditative memoirs, Silence is My Homeland: Life on Teal River (1978) and The Protected Place (1979). The latter describes life on her 140-acre homestead on Cortes Island where she was employed as an Environment Canada weather observer and a Search and Rescue agent. Her cottage was situated at Channel Rock on Uganda Pass. For nine years she served as the Cortes representative on the Comox-Strathcona Regional Board. Gilean Douglas also contributed a nature column called “Nature Rambles” to the Victoria Daily Colonist (which became the Times Colonist in 1980) for 31 years, from 1961 to 1992, a longevity for a B.C. columnist that places in her in the company of Eric Nicol and Arthur Mayse. She died on Cortes Island in 1993.

And for a much longer and much more detailed biography, Andrea Lebowitz’s well-researched and fascinating article, Narratives of Coming Home: Gilean Douglas and Nature Writing, is a must-read.

Well, this is all well and good, but how does River for My Sidewalk measure up to its author’s infinitely intriguing promise?

I must say that I had high expectations, just from reading the cover material and from my quick perusal of the contents before I purchased the book. And I did enjoy reading it, though it went in a little different direction than I had anticipated.

Something about the tone of the narrative voice struck me as a little bit odd, and occasionally forced, and it wasn’t until I twigged to the fact that the author was carefully phrasing her passages to make the book appear as if it were written by a man that the penny dropped. I had started out assuming that the reader was aware that the writer was indeed a woman, and once I revised this assumption and allowed for the time of writing and publication, the late 1940s and early 1950s, the rather coy slant was understandable, and therefore much more acceptable.

Gilean Douglas writes in a strongly opinionated manner. She lays down the law as she sees it, unapologetically critical of mankind’s abuse of nature, and eloquently defensive of the way in which she has chosen to retreat from the mainstream world. She never condemns the city dweller as such, acknowledging that it would be an impossibility for all to strive for her type of lifestyle, but she has little patience for the squeamish and feeble-hearted visitor to the bush who quails at the thought of coming across a cougar or bear, or of crossing a river on an open cable car, or of hiking miles for a casual neighbourly visit.

Much of the book is an enthusiastic tribute to the natural world, phrased in glowing and effusive tones. Possibly just a little too glowing and effusive? The style frequently seems a bit dated even for the time of writing, being perhaps more typical of the century before; it reminds me of those rather stilted memoirs one frequently comes across hiding behind ornate covers in the antique books section of the better second hand book stores.


The day is my friend. I meet it with outstretched hand and use every moment of it to the utmost. Sitting in the house I have partially built I eat the food which I have grown for myself. I have tried to learn everything there is to know about the trees, flowers, birds, animals, insects and rocks which are all around me. It has taken me years and will take more years, but I feel that every grain of such knowledge brings me closer to the great harvest of the universe.

The night is my love. Dusk comes with the benediction  of the thrush and the darkening of river water. The clearing is all shadow and the forest dim with mystery. The shade climbs higher and higher up the mountains which ring my valley, leaving only the peaks crested with sunlight. Everything becomes slower and more silent as the dusk deepens into night. Then stars burn silver in the sky and sometimes the moon sails a midnight sea to a port beyond the tall evergreens of Home Wood. This has been the way of night in the wilderness for untold eons. How few living now have ever known it as I do! Campers, fishermen, hunters come in here bringing their shouts and drinking and luxuries. They go home to boast of their wilderness adventures, but all they take away is a paste jewel in a plastic setting.

And then there are the passages like these:

Spring has swept away the last patch of her snow with her green-twigged broom and hung out the clouds to bleach…


When burning … fir and hemlock have their swan song of beauty… as needles become rosettes of flame which shimmer and fade along the twigs, transforming each one into a garland for some fire queen’s shining hair…

But for all the occasionally purple prose there is much beautifully phrased and sincerely presented, as Gilean Douglas documents the thoughts of her long solitudes. I buried all my qualms when I read this:

We are all strangers here, but no one more so than the person who is out of step with the time. If you are that person you will be understood – and then only imperfectly – by just one or two of all those you know and perhaps by none at all. To the others you will always be suspect. The timid will be afraid o be seen with you; the bold will say they cannot be bothered with anyone who is more interested in the future of the world than in whether today’s market is going up or the price of tomorrow’s whisky going down.

Most of this ostracism will bother you very little for there is nothing you like better than quietness and privacy. But not every moment of your life. In books you can find the comradeship and understanding you are denied by living men, but even so you are hungry for a good heart-to-heart talk with someone who comprehends you intellectually and emotionally. If you are lucky you will come across one or two people with whom you can exchange ideas, and if you are luckier still you will marry one of them…

…[An] urgent sense of the shortness of life, perhaps more than anything else, distinguishes the man out of step with his time from his fellow beings. He sees time wasting everywhere around him and he is disgusted and alarmed. He knows that it is all wrong; that life is precious and should be used for precious things. Not that he believes in all work and no play, but simply that his idea of play differs from the bridging, gossiping, clock-watching, pulp-reading average. To him play is a change of occupation – perhaps from writing to splitting wood – while relaxation is letting go completely in sleep, laughter or lying on a summer hill watching the clouds drift over and “growing soul”…

An unusual and admirable woman, this Gilean Douglas, and one whom I will be seeking to acquaint myself with more deeply through her other writings. Apparently the two 1970s memoirs are not quite so gushing, and are more contemporary in tone, though they are not as well known (relatively speaking) as River for My Sidewalk.

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outside the line christian petersen 001Outside the Line by Christian Petersen ~ 2009. This edition: Dundurn Press, 2009. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-55002-859-1. 213 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I must admit I gave this one an extra dash of “like” because it is by a hometown author. If it was by someone from somewhere else, it would likely only rate a 5. Maybe not even that high…

Christian Petersen has also had published two volumes of short stories. I read, greatly enjoyed, and subsequently reviewed the first collection, Let the Day Perish, so was eager to read Petersen’s first full-length novel.


Middle-aged Peter Ellis is an auxiliary probation officer attached to a busy office in a small, unnamed city in the interior of British Columbia. (And though never named, it is very obviously Williams Lake, with a few creative liberties taken here and there; not quite sure why Petersen didn’t just go ahead and “locate” his place; the caginess is perhaps a self-protective measure by an author who lives and works in his own – though obviously slightly fictionalized – setting.)

As a former student of literature and lower-case communist who once attended rallies and freely signed all manner of petitions, (Peter) had never had any interest or intention of getting involved in the Justice System. When he first began working as a probation officer, a few of his friends questioned the move, and thereby his values. With these keen defenders of human rights he took an almost apologetic tone, claimed the job was a trial run, just a means of survival, certainly temporary. He chews gum at a range of paces, aggressively at the moment, while he swivels back and forth in his chair, prioritizing the work at hand. What he didn’t admit to anyone, even to himself for a long time, was that this job hooked him immediately. Every day it places him at the crisis point in someone’s life, tangent to a stupid mistake, a rage, an arrest.

Peter shies from judgement, despite or maybe partly to spite his Baptist upbringing. He suffers with imagination like vertigo lately, glimpsing life’s infinite heartbreaking scenarios. He wonders whether it is some errant part in himself, some piece askew, that enables his rapport with the probation clients, the offenders.

Then a client walks into Peter’s life whom he can find no common ground with, no sympathy or rapport.

Twenty-four-year-old Todd Nolin is, despite his relative youth, already washed up, and dealing with it badly. As a teenage hockey star and National Hockey League draft pick rookie player, Todd’s potentially brilliant career has gone sideways on him; he’s been quietly let go from the team with no real reason given, and he’s gone from being totally focussed on hockey and rolling in cash to working in the sports store in his old home town, where he’s come to lick his wounds after his ego-crushing letdown.

While Todd was flying high, he bought a lavish (well, lavish by small-town B.C. standards) house in the upper scale neighbourhood he grew up in, hosted wild parties, and took up with a gorgeous local girl, Marina Faro. Now, two years after the “big time”, all that remains of Todd’s fleeting time as an elite athlete is a hometown hero reputation, an appetite for alcohol and cocaine, a condo, and the lovely Marina. And he’s just screwed up the last two. The reason Todd is in Peter Ellis’ office is because of a recent enraged physical and sexual assault of Marina; one of the terms of Todd’s probation is a restraining order barring him from both his home and girlfriend.

Todd’s not taking it well at all. He takes an immediate dislike to his probation officer, and the feeling is more than mutual, especially once Peter meets Marina and feels stirrings of multiple emotions; a paternalistic protective instinct combined with admiration for her physical beauty, plus the unmistakable stirrings of sexual attraction.

Against his better judgement, Peter lets himself go with his feelings. You see, Peter’s own personal life is a bit of a mess, what with his beloved wife of eight years having walked out on him six months or so ago. She’s left Peter for another woman, and is now living in California, only connecting with Peter to inquire why their house, purchased several years ago with the idea of starting a family, hasn’t sold yet.

Facing personal bankruptcy both emotional and financial, Peter has been letting himself go in more ways than one, and when he breaks that ironclad taboo not to get personally involved with a client, he goes down hard. And Todd is on to him…

The rest of the story falls into predictable patterns, and the dramatic ending is par for the course with this type of novel; nothing out of the ordinary.

This is actually a very ordinary story, an ordinary drama. It’s a step back in some ways from Petersen’s edgy short stories, much more cliché-ridden and safer and tamer, despite attempts to keep it moving by tossing in references to the cowboy culture of the area, and a continuous scornful sub-theme of the bad attitudes and deep stupidity of the local “rednecks”.

That last term was what I found most troubling about this novel, because it shows up way too often. C’mon, Christian, is it you or your character Peter talking here? A few too many cheap digs at the less intellectual inhabitants of our “fictional” town, in my opinion.

That, and the totally stereotypical situation with the gorgeous Marina and Peter’s “urges” being too strong for him to control. No matter if she made reciprocal moves of her own, what was the man thinking?!?

Oh, right. Plot device.


Outside the Line is billed as a mystery novel, but it isn’t any such thing. It’s more of a dramatic-suspense, noir-lite type of story. It also reads very much a “first novel”, a bit rough around the edges here and there, especially in the final dramatic scenes, as if the author was not quite sure how to handle his characters during the physical action. He does seem more at home with the cerebral stuff.

I think the word I’m looking for here is “promising”. What is good in Petersen’s writing is very good indeed, as his well-tailored short stories prove. This novel moves in a different direction, and Petersen occasionally falters along the way. I think I made allowances for the weaknesses in the narrative and especially the plot because I did so want to like this book, and I was curious as to what the author would make of a setting familiar to me from my own experience.

Petersen’s Peter Ellis kept reminding my vaguely of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, in that even though he pulled off the most desperately stupid moves, I still liked him at the end. There’s some good writing going on here, and the characterization of Ellis was one of the better aspects of Outside the Line. (The plot, however, was the weakest bit.)

And as for that whole “first novel is autobiography” thing, it seems alive and well in this case. Christian Petersen is intimately familiar with the B.C. interior’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region, as he grew up in Quesnel, and currently lives in Williams Lake, where he works as a probation officer. Well, “write what you know” is good advice, and in this case it works out fairly decently. This novel was just good enough that I would readily read a second, if it ever makes it to the bookstore shelf.

Kudos to Mr. Petersen for his persistence in honing his writerly craft and branching out genre-wise. Here’s hoping that that more than abundant promise is refined even further in future books.

Note: I don’t personally know Christian Petersen, despite being the same age as he is and sharing the same communities. His author photos look darned familiar though; I’m sure we’ve crossed paths in our daily rounds. Williams Lake is really just a very small town at heart, despite its bold claim to cityhood. I’m looking forward to one day meeting the author in person, perhaps at his next novel launch, if and when that occurs. Despite this rather damning review, I have a genuine liking and admiration for his writing style.

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Welsh Poppy, Minter Gardens

Welsh Poppy, Minter Gardens

Minter Gardens, May 29, 2013

Minter Gardens, May 29, 2013

The coolest water feature ever - the "water wall" at Minter Gardens.

The coolest water feature ever – the “water wall” at Minter Gardens.


Clematis, holly, grass, rock - Minter Gardens.

Clematis, holly, grass, rock – Minter Gardens.

Gunnera detail, Minter Gardens.

Gunnera detail, Minter Gardens.


Bridal Veil Falls, near Chilliwack, B.C.

Bridal Veil Falls, near Chilliwack, B.C.

Water power, natural sculpture at the foot of Bridal Falls.

Water power, natural sculpture at the foot of Bridal Falls.

Maidenhair fern, B.C. coastal forest.

Maidenhair fern, B.C. coastal forest.

B.C.'s provincial flower, Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii.

B.C.’s provincial flower, Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii.

Pacific Dogwood in fir forest, near Alexandra Bridge, Fraser Canyon. May 29, 2013.

Pacific Dogwood in fir forest, near Alexandra Bridge, Fraser Canyon. May 29, 2013.

These dogwood flowers are big, as you can see by my hand holding the branch.

These dogwood flowers are big, as you can see by my hand holding the branch.

Pictures from our recent excursion to the lower mainland. We took time out on our final day to botanize and tourist our way home. Didn’t take too many pictures, but these are a sampling of what we saw in our travels.

Beautiful British Columbia – the clichéd phrase is so very true!

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