Six years ago in these pages, the reviewer of George Woodcock's British Columbia: A History of the Province, wrote that "the author called to mind one of those trailblazers that Mackenzie or Thompson might have sent into rugged country, completely confident he'd negotiate the peaks and pitfalls to bring back the real goods." Now into the country comes George Bowering in his unique fashion, capering coyote-like, cocking a snook on the peaks, and taking pratfalls in the pitfalls.
There had been chroniclers before Woodcock, of course, but he was the first to consider the reality of the Native presence. Bowering devotes more space to Aboriginal matters. His book begins with a creation myth and ends with remarks about En'owkin, the Aboriginal school and gathering place in Penticton. Most everything in between, however, is white history. Perhaps this is symbolic to a story that is still unfolding. The Natives were there in the beginning and perhaps will be there at the end, when everyone else is but a memory.
Because he starts his book with Old Man, Old Woman, and Coyote, and proceeds to discuss the potlatch (which so confounded and threatened the first Europeans), I hoped Bowering would attempt to create, as with Eduardo Galleano's magnificent cycle on the Americas, an alternative telling of history. But that is not the case. Most of the territory covered is familiar, which is not to say that the landscape is monotonous. It could never be monotonous. No matter how long you've lived in B.C., no matter how much history you've absorbed, it still seems bizarre. If you don't live here, and haven't read any B.C. history before, you might be excused for thinking Bowering had made it up. It is not fair to historians in other provinces that we've had premiers such as Amor de Cosmos, Duff Pattullo, W.A.C. Bennett, and Bill Vander Zalm. And then there was the mayor of Vancouver, Tom Campbell, who tried to have the War Measures Act invoked against Gastown hippies.
Bowering's B.C. is a recounting of the story of the province in terms of its politics. Those politics, until recently, have consisted of clashes between extremes. The author never explores the reasons for such dichotomies of perspective. Does it have something to do with the rugged individualism of the frontier? Is that why we have so many outsized characters, their myths having all been created in isolation?
Personally, I'd like to read a history of the province that chronicles the lives of its people as lived in reaction to its bizarre politics. What I'd like to read would be irrelevant, except that such a book hasn't been done before. But what has been done by Bowering is engaging. More so, if one is not put off by the author's politics-fashionably leftist-or his attempt at being a populist writer-often bordering on the cutesy.
This political perspective doesn't allow one to underscore the racist stance of B.C. labour unions, or to note that W.A.C. Bennett's Socred government was more opposed to vested interests than either the CCF or the New Democrats. This perspective allows one to make fun of the disjointed speechifying of right-wing politicians and, with no irony whatsoever, to quote disjointed and equally nonsensical B.C. poetry.
This is a big book, so it is not surprising that it should have some awkward moments. What is surprising, given that Bowering has won two Governor General's Awards, is that there should be so many of them. Here are just a few: "In the first decade of the century the salmon were plentiful enough to walk across the rivermouth on."."Parents were doing what it takes to produce families that had not been advisable or possible during the war years."."Dunsmuir tried to keep his head above water by the tried and true method of granting favours to the railroad lobbyists who dogged his steps."
Bowering mentions sports as part of the life of British Columbians, and he emphasizes the importance of the Boer War in making people out here think of themselves as Canadians. But his main achievement is in conveying the sense of the complexity of Native culture and the inability of Europeans to understand the people they encountered.
Despite the "swashbuckling" in the subtitle, there is nothing here either piratical or heretical, and very little about the life of the sea, and the sea's effect on the life of the people of British Columbia. Except for accounts of the early days of coastal exploration, it is a landlubber's history. The trail through that land, blazed by others, has been transformed into a modern thruway. Bowering travels the route in colourful and opinionated style but doesn't veer off into the unfamiliar.
Jim Christy's latest book is Strange Sites: Uncommon Homes & Gardens (Harbour).