By Anne DeGrace
August 5 was B.C. Day, which for most of us was a day to kick back and enjoy some of the amazing weather we’ve been enjoying. We’ve celebrated the day since 1996, when the act to create a B.C. statutory holiday in August gained royal assent. You might think that the point of this was to enable some quality time with the grill, but the official reason was to recognize the province’s pioneers. So let’s do that!
Here’s a select reading list to get you started.
British Columbia was, of course, here long before a whole bunch of new people came to call it that. Here are three books that explore our local Indigenous history: Geography of Memory by Eileen Delahanty Pearkes, Keeping the Lakes Way by Paula Pryce, and Not Extinct by Marilyn James and Taress Alexis. A scholarly, critical look at colonization can be found in Cole Harris’s The Resettlement of British Columbia.
One of those early colonizers was the explorer Simon Fraser, and there is perhaps no better way to experience those first impressions than from the horse’s mouth. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser, 1806-08 is a day to day play-by-play that offers a lot of insight into the man and the times.
The lure of riches brought an influx of fortune-hunters and an era of major change began. Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson describe B.C.’s gold rush in The Trail of 1858, and historian Bill Barlee paints the regional picture in Gold Creeks and Ghost Towns. One of my favourite accounts of life at that time — especially as it is history through a woman’s lens — is Flapjacks and Photographs: a History of Mattie Gunterman, Camp Cook and Photographer by Henri Robideau.
Robert (Lucky) Budd’s books Voices of British Columbia and Echoes of British Columbia offer first person accounts of life during our province’s earliest days. Budd took voice recordings from the 1950s and ‘60s and built these books around them — which each include a three-CD set in the back, so you can hear these voices for yourself. This is a fascinating and intimate way to experience the lives of our pioneers, and it includes the voices of Indigenous people and women, often left out of historical narratives. Great photographs, too.
In 2018 Cole Harris released Ranch in the Slocan: a Biography of a Kootenay Farm, 1896-2017, which joins a growing collection of books about our beloved valley including The Third Crop by Rita Moir and The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley by Katherine Gordon.
I love to learn history through fiction. As a writer, exploring the story of Renata — from its first settlers to land expropriation for dam development — when I was researching for the novel Treading Water was richer thanks to the work of historians and former Renata residents, so that I could imagine how things might have been.
Two other works of local fiction that draw from living memory are The Diamond Grill by Fred Wah, about his father’s Baker Street restaurant (and quite a bit more), and Vi Plotnikoff’s Head Cook at Weddings and Funerals and Other Stories of Doukhobor Life. Brian d’Eon couldn’t time travel to get those first-person accounts, but it sure feels like he did in his novel Big Ledge: the Trials and Tribulations of Robert E. Sproule.
There are so many great B.C. historical novels, from the classic I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven to Michael Kluckner’s graphic novel Julia, which explores the life and times of a remarkable B.C. woman in the 1910s and 20s in this relatively new literary form.
Check out a bit of B.C. this month, and discover the roots of the province we call home.
Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week.