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The Illustrated History of British Columbia

by Terry Reksten
280 pages,
ISBN: 155054859x


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Vivid History and a Fine Testament
by David Berry

Not long ago, a Victoria acquaintance of mine who has never travelled across the Rockies was telling me how much he was looking forward to his first visit to Ontario. There's so much more history there, he said. Not so, I instantly replied, having lived half a life in both placesŻŻnot at all.

Back there, I continued (exaggerating slightly), all you've got is an additional fifty or sixty years of cutting down trees: excluding a few naughty bits like the War of 1812 and the Mackenzie Rebellion, the rest is mostly peace, order, good government, and bankers twirling their moustaches. Not much of a show compared to two centuries of fires and floods, fur trading and 800-mile cattle drives, roads and railways and hydro dams blasted out of mountainsides, instant towns built overnight and abandoned just as quickly (or, like Vancouver in its infancy, burnt to cinders and immediately rebuilt) and, of course, gold rushes and goofy politicians galore.

All of this has been retold many times: in recent years British Columbia's story has been well served by both publishers and writers, including the publisher and author of this admirable book. The difference here is that this purports to be, as the jacket proclaims, the first major illustrated history of the province; in other words, it's all here in one gorgeous volume for you to leave out on your coffee table.

More than any small press bravado or charity shown to poets, a book like this demonstrates the courage, the sheer chutzpah of book publishers. This could have been a very bad book. It sets its sights extremely high. It boasts an editorial advisory board of eleven distinguished British Columbians and a list of corporate sponsors that includes the province's public archives, telephone company and publicly-owned car insurer. All of which might suggest a "package" book, another millennium project, public relations people hovering in the wings. It is not, and it succeeds marvelously. Judging from the result, I wouldn't be surprised if the advisory board actually provided helpful advice (they don't always); in turn the sponsors' dollars have subsidized a very handsome production that has earned the publisher at least one well-deserved design award.

But although an illustrated book is more of a team effort than most, the greatest credit here should go to the author, Terry Reksten. It's a sad reality that few coffee table books ever actually get read: this one certainly deserves to be. Wisely, Reksten does not even try to tell the whole story in this limited space; instead, she expands on those episodes in British Columbia history that help to build an impression of the province and its people, or that represent a significant turning point in its development.

This enables her, like a good popular historian or journalist, to focus more sharply on the kind of fascinating detail that would have eluded a broader brush. As a random example, here is a description of the operation of the province's first salmon cannery: "The tin cans were made by hand. Measured sections were cut from pieces of tin and wrapped around a wooded dowel to form a cylinder; then hand-cut circles were soldered to either end. In 1873ŗtwenty Chinese workers produced 4,250 cases, each containing forty-eight one-pound cans." On the same page there is block of copy in the margin describing in detail the traditional Native method of curing salmon. In fact, the entire book is punctuated with well-illustrated sidebars and longer essays. To the credit of the author, editor and designer, these are so complementary to the main text that they barely seem to interrupt it.

Above all, this is social history at its best. Reksten does not so much tell the story as allow it to be told by its protagonists, relying strongly on contemporary quotes from letters, journals, memoirs and newspapers of the day and drawing on the experiences of the broadest possible spectrum of the men, women and cultural groups who made up British Columbia at any given time. They're all hereŻŻminers, packers, homesteaders, depression tramps, Japanese wartime internees and countless moreŻŻand many of them might be called nobodies, but they're all somebody here. In this respect, the book at times almost takes on the character of an oral historyŻŻ about as far as you can get from the "great man" school of history writing, and a particularly appropriate way to treat a last-frontier province whose past (and, some would argue, present as well) has been distinguished more by the resilience and individualism of its people than the exceptional brilliance of its leaders. In this respectŻŻthough it would have sounded a little too earnestŻŻBritish Columbia: A People's History might have been a more descriptive title.

All things considered, though, this is an illustrated history that lives up to its name. Beginning with the striking photo-montage on the jacket, this is a superb selection of images, with people (both individuals and groups) outnumbering the landscapes: both serve as a graphic reminder of the extraordinary skill of early photographers. Of necessity, black and white with appropriate sepia tinting predominates, but this only accentuates the vividness of the smaller number of carefully chosen colour plates. (On a personal note: the brilliant artwork of the apple box label on page 188, or one very much like it, with crimson lettering and green orchards stretching in perspective to a distant and even more verdant mountain horizon, is my childhood image of British Columbia, and one that still gives me great pleasure despite my having long since discovered that in reality the Okanagan Valley is more like the terrain on which Ronald Reagan made western movies. Such is the power of marketing, which British Columbia has always been very good at.)

Two small quibbles. While the captions are well written and informative when it comes to elaborating on the content of the illustrations and photographs, many provide little or no information about the provenance or date (or even approximate decade) of the images themselves, and the list of credits in the back of the book to various archival collections is of little help. Perhaps the information simply wasn't available. More maps would have been helpful, too, especially to readers unfamiliar with British Columbia geographyŻŻ as would more detail in the ones supplied, and an index of where they can be found in the text. But these are minor inconveniences.

Terry Reksten's death shortly after the publication of this book curtailed an exceptional career both as an author and as an advocate for the preservation and better understanding of British Columbia's past. It is no small consolation that she left us this book as her last workŻŻnot the final word on the history of the province but something infinitely better, and the best possible testament any writer can leave: a story her readers, and future writers, will want to pick up and rediscover again and again. Ú

David Berry has edited many illustrated books and was a speechwriter under four consecutive British Columbia governments. He lives in Victoria.

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