Literature in BC

  • Caroline Woodward
    Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny. Oolichan Books
  • Alan Twigg
    The Essentials: 150 Great B.C. Books & Authors. Ronsdale Press
  • Antonia Banyard
    Never Going Back. Thistledown Press
Reviewed by Mark Diotte

Alan Twigg’s The Essentials is the fourth volume of his literary history of British Columbia, and is preceded by First Invaders, Aboriginality, and Thompson’s Highway. Initially, the title may seem presumptuous, given that Twigg’s “panoramic approach . . . necessarily omits hundreds of books and authors.” Furthermore, writers like Jean Barman, Michael Turner, Patrick Lane, Eden Robinson, and Sky Lee do not appear here. Twigg claims that many authors were not included because they have “achieved prominence elsewhere,” yet still present in the volume are writers such as Emily Carr, Jack Hodgins, and Douglas Coupland— writers who, despite their national and international reputations, are perhaps “more essential” for Twigg than others. Despite the obvious issues surrounding anthology selection, Twigg’s work is itself essential. While many authors are absent, he successfully draws attention to little-known individuals such as writer George Godwin, novelist and poet Susan Musgrave, and science fiction author William Gibson, whose novel Neuromancer (1984) won Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Twigg also includes entries that range across genres and media to include playwright George Ryga, photographer John Vanderpant, historians Rolf Knight and Douglas Cole, and journalist Barry Broadfoot, who is described by Twigg as the “pioneer of oral history in Canada.” It is in locating these lesser-known individuals as essential that Twigg’s volume finds excellence.

Antonia Banyard’s debut novel Never Going Back revolves around five friends who reflect on the childhood experiences and memories that have shaped their adult lives. As Evan, Siobhan, Lea, Mandy, and Lance gather to commemorate the death of Kristy, Evan’s cousin, they begin to question the roles they may have played in her possible suicide and how they were blinded to the sexual abuse she endured from their teacher, Albert Hiller. The novel is set primarily in Nelson, BC, and is told from the perspectives of Evan, Siobhan, and Lance with the chapter titles signalling a shift between characters. Despite the change in point of view, the narrative remains in the third person, however, and sometimes, the nuances of each character are lost as a result. The beginning of the novel seems strained in places as Banyard develops her characters and their particular relationships to one another. Yet, as the plot unfolds, the initial awkwardness drops away and Banyard’s characters begin to drive the plot forward. Banyard’s talent for developing a multi-layered narrative of secrecy, betrayal, family conflict, and romance is impressive in this debut novel. Especially successful is the story of Siobhan who has kept in touch with Hiller throughout his incarceration; the continuing connection between student and teacher is particularly compelling in relation to his conviction, and the role he played in Kristy’s death—a role Siobhan is either unaware or wilfully ignorant of. While at times I wanted a more intimate portrayal of small-town Nelson, I find the novel to be an important contribution to the continually evolving literary landscape of British Columbia.

Set in the Peace River region of British Columbia, Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny by Caroline Woodward is reminiscent of the fiction of Gail Anderson-Dargatz as well as When She Was Electric by Andrea MacPherson. Woodward’s poetic style immediately captures the attention of the reader with Penny’s first impression of Wade’s “laughing spray of lines curving down the cheekbones.” While the author describes her novel as a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, the strength and success of the narrative is Penny’s struggles with work, poverty, and isolation on the family ranch while Wade is long-haul trucking. Penny runs the ranch seemingly on her own by “selling good quality hay, raising and boarding horses, having bees . . . keeping two hundred purebred Angus cattle, a dozen chickens, a few pigs and a huge garden,” in addition to working as a substitute teacher. Penny also contends with her “creepy neighbour” Evers and the attentions of Mort Granger while Wade is away. Wade’s trucking journey ranges from the rescue of an abused woman to an encounter with his trucking partner’s sex-club venture, and he begins to realize that his cargo may not be the potatoes, honey, and salmon he expects it to be. Despite Wade’s adventures, Penny is the hero of the novel. As she edits a volume of community history that begins with first settler William Good, Wade’s grandfather, she is simultaneously “rewriting” the male- dominated history of the region through her work on the ranch. The triumph of the novel is the way that Woodward dislocates the male world of ranch labour through Penny’s independence and by positioning her as the central presence and controlling force of both the ranch and the novel.

This review “Literature in BC” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 146-48.

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