Hidden and Exposed in BC

  • Ursula Vaira
    And See What Happens: The Journey Poems. Caitlin Press
  • Catherine Owen
    Seeing Lessons. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
  • Betty Keller
    A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury & Trial by Newspaper. Caitlin Press
  • Jo Hammond
    Edge of the Sound: Memoirs of a West Coast Log Salvager. Caitlin Press
  • Onjana Yawnghwe, Al Rempel, Peter Morin and Daniela Elza
    4 Poets. Mother Tongue
Reviewed by Reece Steinberg

It wasn’t until halfway through Jo Hammond’s book that I could appreciate what, exactly, log salvaging entails—the dangers, unbearable working conditions, and constant uncertainties are beyond what I had imagined. This memoir is the picture of an unusual career and a slice of time in the recent past of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. Hammond leaves England for Western Canada, escaping negligent parents only to find phantoms of her family haunting her through her abusive, alcoholic husband. As she becomes a part of the small community in a then-undeveloped area of the Sunshine Coast, she sheds her husband. Through a mutual love of a wild, simple life, and listening to old LPs, she develops a strong friendship and eventually relationship with a quiet older man who has spent his life salvaging logs that have been lost or dumped during a storm.

Hammond becomes the first woman to salvage logs in the area, and through the descriptions of the physical challenges and mishaps on the job, she speaks of fragments of her life and the difficulties she has faced, as well as the unusual and good times. Her voice as an early West Coast feminist is most interesting when she shares stories of a captivating way of living, unknown to most people. Descriptions of her romantic life are flat and uninspiring, but fortunately the rest of the book provides sufficient motivation to skim through the less-successful parts.

Another Sunshine Coast author, Betty Keller, writes of early-twentieth-century Vancouver, centring on Esther Jones and Theresa Jackson, a mother and daughter who run a boarding house and gently scandalize the community by living without husbands. The women, initially accused
of evading rent, quickly become murderers in the eyes of the public when Theresa’s recently returned husband turns up dead. Sensational news coverage sways public opinion as well as the courts. From their quiet, private lives, they are thrust in to the public eye, with their images splashed across the front of daily newspapers. The story is based on a historical case and features many important figures of the time. Lawyers, judges, and newspaper staff are depicted in sidebars, with photographs and a brief description. Though the story takes place before the First World War, the themes are contemporary: the influence of mass media on the public, the legal system’s frailty and corruption, and the misogyny the two women face.

Jelly fish, owl bones, and fingerprints: this is wild British Columbian poetry, and it’s unforgiving and graphic. Catherine Owen writes an interpretation of the life of Mattie Gunterman (1872-1945), a passionate photographer and camp cook. The poems are thick with BC flavours, textures, and names; they reek of cedar and salt water, and set a tone for Gunterman’s work. Sandwiched by Owen’s poetry are journal entries, letters, and of course photographs taken by Gunterman. These bring a storyline, facts, and a voice to balance the poetry’s account of her life.

The first in Ursula Vaira’s book of three long poems is inspired by her participation in Roy Henry Vickers’ VisionQuest canoe voyage to raise awareness of addictions and funds for an all-nations recovery centre. She is aware of her perspective as a “Caucasian civilian” and also as the only woman in the canoe. This poem focuses on traditional practices of the different nations the voyage takes them to, as well as the addictions, policing, and legal systems imposed on Native people. The comforts, discomforts, and dangers of the journey play a prominent part as well—poached salmon and twelve-foot swells. Prose scattered among the poetry explains events of the journey and stories that Vaira witnesses. The second and third poems are also about journey, though the second focuses on inner travel. Vaira examines her life from a remote cabin in the northern Rockies. In the final poem, the author uses her kayak trip from Port Hardy to Zeballos to depict the northern landscape and Vancouver Island. Many islands, capes, and other land and sea features have their own small chapter in the poem. Overall, the poems are distinct slices of Vaira’s life, unmistakeably rooted in the West Coast.

In 4 Poets, Daniela Elza writes with space as much as with words. Liquid pauses spread throughout the page, preventing the eye from darting to the next word. It’s impossible to read “ a rum bottle breaking next to my ear” without vivid images exploding from the words.

Peter Morin writes about the Tahltan language, about his search for how to tell the land’s stories, and about teaching and talking with Native youth about their shared and distinct cultures and languages. He ties these themes together with an overarching struggle for decolonization. His words are straightforward, personal, warm, and instructional; this is poetry that people can read without caring that it’s poetry. Wild areas, rock radio, and semis come together to approximate Prince George, poet Al Rempel’s home. It makes perfect sense to read a poem about birches and hydro men, about campfire trash and yellow pollen in an interpretation of his northern city surroundings. Onjana Yawnghwe’s poems speak about her experience of moving to the BC lower mainland from Chiang Mai, Thailand. She touches on themes familiar to many children who move to Canada while still learning English.

This review “Hidden and Exposed in BC” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 164-66.

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