Seven novels set in West Kootenay
There is no shortage of fiction set in our own backyard. A few dozen novels have used West Kootenay as their backdrop, although figuring out which was the first is tricky. (Early works such as Evah McKowan’s Janet of Kootenay and Robert Knowles’ The Singer of the Kootenay were either set in East Kootenay or else left the exact location nebulous.)
The following are simply some of my favourites. I could add many more.
The Kootenay Kidnapper (1983)
“Where is Tippi Allen?” is the opening line of Eric Wilson’s mystery novel for kids.
Tippi, we learn, is an eight-year-old Hume school student who has been kidnapped. A vacationing Tom Austen, who is a little older, gets caught up in trying to find her — visiting Sandon, the Cody Caves, and other local attractions along the way.
Although contemporary when first published, the book is now a time capsule of sorts, with references to things now gone like the Wizard’s Castle arcade, Silver Ledge Hotel in Ainsworth, and Nelson Daily News.
The peripatetic author lived and taught in Nelson while he wrote this book, the fifth in his Tom Austen series. Many others followed, in which Tom and his sister Liz solved crimes across Canada.
Understanding Ken (1998)
Pete McCormack’s masterpiece is told from the eyes of a 10-year-old boy in Trail in 1973.
He is the second-best player on his pee wee hockey team and is aghast when Ken Dryden quits the NHL to study law. His parents are recently separated: he lives with his mother in Montrose, while his father, a Rossland doctor, is the hockey dad from hell.
With his home life a mess, he escapes to The Game, keeping stats on his basement matches and trying feebly to create a backyard rink while awaiting a shot at the provincial championship. McCormack grew up in Trail, and portions of the book are autobiographical.
The tone is pitch-perfect. When I first picked it up, I only planned to skim it. Instead I read it all in one sitting.
Alex (2006) and Mail Order Bride (2001)
Montrose-raised comic book artist Mark Kalesniko has published two full-length novels set in Bandini, a stand-in for Trail. In Alex, the smelter, old bridge, view from Columbia Heights, covered stairs, and East Trail liquor store all figure prominently in a semi-autobiographical tale of a Disney animator who moves home to sort out his life and his art.
Mail Order Bride, in which a spineless toy store owner cramps his Korean wife’s style, also features many recognizable places — although some take on alternate forms, such as the Rossland courthouse, which becomes the David Thompson Art Centre.
(Kalesniko attended David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, and dedicated the book to the school’s “artists, students, and teachers.”)
The Man With Yellow Eyes (1963)
Gray Creek author Catherine Anthony Clark wrote many children’s books, of which The Golden Pine Cone and The Sun Horse are the best known. But The Man With Yellow Eyes is noteworthy as the only one that used real place names (others had places inspired by real locations, but you had to crack the code).
In this book, mean old Yelloweyes Grum tries to steal a claim from young Steve Dall’s father, who is sick and bedridden at home in Slocan. Yelloweyes has a head start to the recording office in Nelson, but Steve and his friend Dick set out on horseback over the Lemon Creek road to the West Arm of Kootenay Lake to try to beat him. En route they meet a hermit — is he friend or foe? — and get attacked by a cougar.
Tuppence Ha’penny is a Nickel (1987)
J.J. Atherton, a colourful if restless English newspaperman, emigrated to Canada in 1903 with his wife Alice. This book, by his youngest son Francis, is a dramatized account of the family’s travels through 1909. During that time, Atherton ran newspapers in Ferguson, Trout Lake, Sandon, New Denver, and Creston.
The novel combines family lore with local history, and features other notable Kootenay characters of the era like Johnny Harris, Alice Jowett, and Robert T. Lowery. It ends with Atherton risking — and losing — everything in a poker game. An unpublished sequel exists.
Treading Water (2005)
Anne DeGrace’s debut novel is set in Bear Creek, a stand-in for the drowned Arrow Lakes town of Renata. It consists of a series of vignettes — some inspired by real events — stretching from 1904 through 1967.
We are present as Ursula Hartmann is the first child born in the community — and as she leaves over 60 years later; we meet Duncan, the postmaster and lonely outcast who awaits Ursula’s smile every day; Richard North, a school teacher suffering shell-shock; and 16-year-old Paul Doyle, who lights the match to his own house as the soon-to-be flooded valley is cleared.
Poignant and haunting.