British Columbia’s Iliad?

  • Bertrand W. Sinclair (Author)
    The Inverted Pyramid. Ronsdale Press
Reviewed by Mark Diotte

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Vancouver, the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia together with Vancouver Poet Laureate Brad Cran have created the Vancouver 125 Legacy Book Collection—a project to bring back ten classic books about British Columbia. A mixture of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, the list includes Ronsdale’s reprinting of Bertrand Sinclair’s novel The Inverted Pyramid. Actively publishing from 1908 to 1954, Sinclair is the author of over fifteen novels, the most critically successful being Big Timber (1916), Poor Man’s Rock (1920), The Hidden Places (1922), and The Inverted Pyramid (1924).

While The Inverted Pyramid is perhaps the most enduring and literary of Sinclair’s novels aside from Poor Man’s Rock, surprisingly little has been written about it other than in Betty C. Keller’s popular biography Pender Harbour Cowboy: The Many Lives of Bertrand Sinclair (2000) and Richard Lane’s Literature and Loss: Bertrand William Sinclair’s British Columbia (2000), along with brief mentions in academic articles about the literature of British Columbia.

In the opening pages of the novel, the young protagonist Rod Norquay asks himself, “Why was there no Iliad of the pioneers, no Human Comedy of men and manners peculiar to the North Coast?” To some extent it seems as though Sinclair is reaching toward this goal. The novel ranges from 1909 to 1920 and follows the story of the Norquay family from a survey of Old Norquay’s immigration during the fur trade, to their family success in the logging industry, and finally, to the creation and collapse of the Norquay Trust company. The plot revolves primarily around Rod, but also includes his two brothers: Phil Norquay, head of the timber business, and Grove Norquay, founder of the Norquay Trust. One of the major strengths of the book is the attention paid to historical detail. Sinclair vividly portrays the particulars of the timber industry, including the workers’ demands for better working conditions as well as the financial and environmental catastrophes that occurred in early-twentieth-century logging. Similarly successful is the depiction of greed amidst the major players involved in the Norquay Trust (which is itself a story based on Vancouver’s Dominion Trust of 1903 that went bankrupt amidst scandal in 1914).

Another significant strength of the novel is the way that Sinclair uses Rod and his conversations with Norquay Senior to advocate for an early version of environmental conservationism and to support restraint within logging practices. It is also through Rod that Sinclair implies that capitalism is unsustainable. Instead, Sinclair suggests that another model is necessary—one where profit comes from thinking of workers as an integral part of business and treating them with dignity, respect, and equality.

The Inverted Pyramid is also the story of romance between Rod and Mary Thorn, the daughter of a family considered by the Norquays to be of a lower class. A close reading of the novel suggests that the Norquays’ dislike for Mary Thorn results from the possibility that her mother is not white. A foremost critique of Sinclair’s work has been that he does little, if anything, to represent the history of non-white minority figures in the logging industry. Further, his historical representations operate primarily within a patriarchal ideology.

Nevertheless, Sinclair’s sweeping narrative of failure and fortune on the west coast of British Columbia drives the reader forward in the novel. He creates characters we both love and despise, and he provides readers with a glimpse into some of the processes that shaped the province.

This review “British Columbia’s Iliad?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 188-89.

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