Tyee Books

Who Are BC's Best Neglected Writers?

Here are ten we think deserve closer and wider reading. Who would you add to the list?

By Crawford Kilian 27 Aug 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Sheila Watson: avant-garde novelist from BC's interior.

This province has a literary history going back over a century, but we seem to have forgotten most of our key authors. These ten managed to write a kind of collective history in fiction of British Columbia. Fortunately, their books are still available in the Vancouver Public Library and several post-secondary libraries in the lower mainland. You can also preview some of them in Google Books, and order full copies online. In alphabetic order:

Earle Birney (1904-1995): Better known as a poet and the founder of the UBC Department of Creative Writing, Birney won the 1949 Leacock Award for Humour with his war novel Turvey: A Military Picaresque -- about a kind of Canadian Good Soldier Schweik, who gets into plenty of trouble without ever coming near combat.

Hubert Evans (1892-1986) was a B.C. writer for 70 years. His best-known novel, Mist on the River (1954) was one of the first to offer a realistic picture of First Nations people as the central characters. He was also a poet and children's writer.

Alan Fry (1931- ) broke onto the scene in 1970 with How a People Die, another serious attempt to deal with issues that First Nations confront in B.C. -- especially alcoholism. It stirred a lot of controversy, more than his later three novels: The Revenge of Annie Charlie, Come a Long Journey, and The Burden of Adrian Knowle.

Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) is more read about than read. His great work Under the Volcano takes alcoholism to the psychedelic level. It is not a good trip, but one worth taking. His collection of short stories, Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place is more accessible, and shows us 1940s Vancouver (especially North Van's Dollarton) as a place of beauty and squalor.

Norman Newton (1929- ) was a CBC Radio broadcaster for many years. (Full disclosure: He bought and produced five of my radio plays in the early 1970s.) His novels include The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship, describing "Port Charles" (Prince Rupert) in the 1950s. He also wrote a controversial nonfiction book about the Haida. Newton's style is difficult, I suspect for philosophical reasons: Complex ideas require complex explication.

Paul St. Pierre (1923- ) has had careers as a journalist, TV writer, novelist, and MP. The novel Breaking Smith's Quarterhorse, based on his CBC TV series Cariboo Country, is a wonderful evocation of the Chilcotin. St. Pierre continues his writing on his blog.

Bertrand Sinclair (1881-1972): In novels like Big Timber (1916) and Poor Man's Rock (1920), Sinclair portrayed us as a working province, with heroes who tried to build their lives and fortunes in a resource-based economy.

Sheila Watson (1909-1998) published The Double Hook in 1959, becoming Canada's first avant-garde novelist. Based on her experience as a teacher in the B.C. interior, it's stylistically difficult but symbolically powerful. It deserves to be rescued from the Canlit grad seminars.

Ethel Wilson (1888-1980) published Swamp Angel in 1954. Its portrayal of a woman leaving an unhappy marriage in Vancouver for independence in the B.C. interior is a portent of feminist and environmentalist writers who came much later.

L.R. Wright (1939-2001) wrote mysteries, often set on the Sunshine Coast, where the identity of the murderer was less important than social context of the murder. The Suspect was the first in the Karl Alberg mystery series, followed by novels featuring RCMP Sgt. Edwina Henderson.

Whatever your tastes in fiction, tracking down these authors is rewarding. Their style may be difficult, experimental, or just plain old-fashioned. But their books all offer an irresistible attraction: This is what B.C. once looked like in the eyes of a very talented writer.  [Tyee]

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