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Childhood in British Columbia

A recommended reading list from the author of Far Creek Road.

Book Cover Far Creek Road

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I wrote my first novel between the time I was 17 and 22. It was dreadful, as you might expect. The story was set in a veteran’s hospital in Vancouver, and all of the characters had symbolic names. My parents had met in a veteran’s hospital where my mother was a nurse and my father was visiting an army buddy recovering from terrible burns. But I knew nothing about veteran’s hospitals beyond the family story, nor did I have any idea how to research the subject, much less how to write about it.  

Still, I finished the manuscript—and I’m proud of that—then sent it around to publishers after moving to Toronto. Most sent back surprisingly courteous rejections, given how bad it was, and Anna Porter went one step further. She was then a star editor at McClelland & Stewart, a shining light, and she called me in for a meeting. I’m not going to hold her to this so many years later, but she said she thought I showed talent, although my writing demonstrated neither discipline nor craft. I had gone to the University of British Columbia, intending to study creative writing, but I’d hated the first-year class, workshopping so much bad writing, by which I mean mine. So I dropped out of the program to study political science, although that’s another story.

Now Anna Porter told me to do what I should have done at UBC. I needed to read and write short fiction, learning my craft. Afterward, I would be ready to write my real first novel. She also pointed out that many first novels were set during writers’ childhoods, where they could dig deep. I recognized good advice when I heard it, and went off to write my first book of stories, Hard Travel. Afterwards I tried dutifully to work on a novel set during my childhood, but I had nothing. Instead I wrote a first novel called Poor Player set among expats in Mexico, where I was living at the time.

Only now, with my ninth book, have I written a novel about childhood set where I grew up, on the North Shore of Vancouver. It was the pandemic lockdown that got me started. I haven’t lived in Vancouver since I was 22, and hadn’t even been back to visit all that recently. But being effectively barred from visiting the coast, I found myself bathed in nostalgia for the ocean, the mountains, the forest, and especially the creek near our suburban house I had haunted as a child. So I opened a file and started writing, imagining the smell of the humus-y forest and the ripe salal berries. Now that Far Creek Road is out in the world, I’ve been reading books set on the coast, especially books involving children, silently congratulating the writers for doing what I tried to do but took so many years to manage.

Here are some of them.

Book Cover the Double Life of Benson Yu

The Double Life of Benson Yu, by Kevin Chong

In his seventh book, Kevin Chong does a very hard thing. He writes about the sexual abuse of a child in a remarkably moving and un-graphic way. Considering that his protagonist is a graphic novelist, that’s a trick. His main character, Benson Yu, grew up in Chinatown, and although Chong doesn’t get specific about place, I kept picturing Vancouver’s Chinatown since Chong grew up in the city (and studied creative writing at UBC). The grown-up Benson has enjoyed success with his graphic novels about a Samurai lizard, which have been made into a series of pop culture films.

I loved the underlying realism of a sometimes-fantastical story, and the complex characters Chong creates. Benson doesn’t ride a straight line to riches and fame, bringing on imposter syndrome, self-hatred, all the usual cliches. Instead, before the novel opens, he signed a bad contract giving away his rights to his Samurai character, so the money has never been never good and lately it’s dwindled, while the franchise movies have grown embarrassingly bad. Now Benson is flailing, drinking too much while trying to find a creative way forward by writing a book about his traumatic childhood. We see more or less what happened in alternating chapters focused on young Benny, whose mother dies young and whose largely-absentee father creates havoc when he appears. There’s also Benny’s grandmother, the harsh and reliable Poh-Poh, who’s there until she isn’t, and the blue-eyed karate teacher who is the model for the Samurai lizard, and whom we realize in horror is abusing Benny, which goes on largely between the lines.

Revisiting his childhood has plunged Benson into crisis, even as he insistently tells readers ways in which his own childhood differed from the fictional Benny’s. Then Benny comes to live with Benson, brought by a social worker who’s the same age in Benson’s present as she is in Benny’s past. Chong’s novel is impossible to summarize briefly, involving as it does a thoroughly unreliable narrator, time travel, visions and a lot of booze. It’s also very funny, on top of being so sad. The Double Life of Benson Yu is one of the best books I’ve read lately. Highly recommended.


Book Cover Greenwood

Greenwood, by Michael Christie

It’s almost as if Michael Christie and Kevin Chong set out to write books inhabiting opposite ends of the novel spectrum. Chong chose a long title for a short book, while in the concisely-named Greenwood, Christie has written a whuffer of a 490-page multi-generational novel. Vancouver lives between the lines of Chong’s book, while the old-growth West Coast forest is the central character of Christie’s novel, beautifully described and minutely detailed down to the intertwined roots of Douglas fir trees. I could go on about the differences, but there’s one major similarity (aside from the fact Christie also studied creative writing at UBC). Both novels are about unhappy families and the trauma they generate, which rumbles down through the generations. The sins of the father: I sometimes wonder if there’s any other theme in literature, at least these days.

Greenwood opens in 2038 after a devastating worldwide die-off of forests called the Great Withering. Jake Greenwood, who is a woman, works as a guide in one of the world’s last old growth forests, a privately-owned spread on Greenwood Island off the B.C. coast, where One Percenters come to forest bathe for an exorbitant price. Jake isn’t related to the Greenwood family that owned the island historically—at least she doesn’t think so as the novel opens. Yet as the action moves back to centre on her father in 2008, then her grandmother in 1974, then 1934 and 1908 before moving forward again, we learn a more twisted and complicated story of birth and ownership, and Jake is tantalized with the possibility that she actually owns the island.


The sins of the father: I sometimes wonder if there’s any other theme in literature, at least these days.

Greenwood is intricately researched, down to its complex understanding of the early days of forestry in B.C. I found the characters a little too straight-line for my liking, meaning they didn’t zigzag through life the way most of us do. When Jake’s hippie/environmentalist grandmother gives away every penny of the soiled Greenwood fortune she inherits, I thought of another novel I was reading at the time, Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea. There a character also inherits a dirty fortune and resolves to give it away. But as the narrator Lucy notes drily, in her experience people who resolve to give away all their money always find a rationale for keeping enough to live on comfortably. I would have believed more thoroughly in the hippie grandmother if she had, too. However, Christie’s project isn’t an examination of character, and it’s unfair to criticize novelists for not writing a novel they didn’t set out to write. This is a book of ideas and environmentalism, and Christie uses the pages to raise a forest of facts and warnings about our careless stewardship of the planet, and the dire consequences that are already here.


book Cover Paper Shadows

Paper Shadows, by Wayson Choy

I re-read Wayson Choy’s memoir Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood after reading Greenwood. It was published in 1999 and Wayson Choy died in 2019 at the age of 80. He was such a kind and caring man. I remembered enjoying Paper Shadows at the time it was published, and went back to it with a question. Michael Christie’s Greenwood turns on the issue of unknown parentage. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the melodramatic theft of a child lies at the heart of Christie’s story. Paper Shadows opens with an equally-dramatic and in this case nonfictional moment. After appearing on a CBC Radio show in Vancouver, Choy receives a message to call a woman who had been listening to the show. “I saw your mother last week,” she tells him. Impossible, Choy replies. His mother has been dead for 18 years. “No, no, not your mother,” the woman insists. “I saw your real mother.”

The phone call sends Choy down a rabbit hole, investigating his past in Vancouver’s Chinatown and his family’s history in mainland China. The woman on the phone turns out to be mistaken. His “real” mother is dead as well. But he quickly learns what most of his family already knows: that he was adopted, possibly bought from a mother who had given birth to him while unmarried. His birth father was likely a player in the Chinese opera. Choy’s moving story features as many larger-than-life characters as Greenwood, with a nuanced villain in the person of his grandfather’s second wife, his father’s stepmother. Second Wife is loud, demanding and dissatisfied. She constantly complains about being duped into emigrating to Canada, where she doesn’t have the servants she was used to in China. It’s also true that her bound feet—three inches long—increasingly pain the poor woman as she’s forced to do chores her servants used to handle. She’s a huge character, exasperating, destructive and unforgettable.

My question: Is it possible to write about melodrama without being melodramatic? Wayson Choy’s memoir says yes. It’s beautifully written and stands up well almost 25 years later. (By the way, Choy studied creative writing at UBC, too.) What’s changed, I suppose, is social media, where you have to shout to be heard. Paper Shadows doesn’t shout and Greenwood does. These days, maybe it has to.

My question: Is it possible to write about melodrama without being melodramatic? Wayson Choy’s memoir says yes.


Book Cover Five Little Indians

Five Little Indians, by Michelle Good

Michelle Good is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation of Saskatchewan, and she worked for Indigenous organizations for 25 years. After getting a law degree, Good spent another 14 years advocating for residential school survivors while taking time to do her MFA at UBC. Yes, her, too. I had no idea all these novels were written by UBC alumni until I checked their bios afterwards. (Michael Christie was also a professional skateboarder.)

What makes Five Little Indians especially impressive is Good’s ability to write in the quiet voices of people ruined by a so-called educational system, kidnapped and alienated from their home cultures while being left without skills that will help them navigate life in another. We join Lucy, Kenny, Maisie, Howie and Clara when they’re taken to a brutal residential school on the coast of B.C., levered from their Indigenous families with hollow promises and unveiled threats. There, the religious order that runs the school oversees their abuse and humiliation in an effort to make them conform to settler society. It isn’t the same, but I thought about Second Wife in Wayson Choy’s memoir and other settler women brought to Canada against their will. They’re all people from whom power and confidence are relentlessly drained, and they fight back in ways that are often self-destructive. Michelle Good is particularly acute in showing how reaction follows action as we follow the children in Five Little Indians into their adult lives.

While I was moved by all of the survivors, it was Kenny who touched me most. As an adult, Kenny can’t stop moving from job to job, learning the dodges as a logger, picking fruit, or working on a fishing boat, trying to outrun his demons as he moves restlessly in and out of his partner Lucy’s life. What I found especially moving was the way Kenny tries to be a good person. Not to say the others don’t, or that he doesn’t succeed in his own way. But Kenny is also something like Sisyphus in being condemned by the gods to push a boulder uphill only to watch it roll down again. He can’t get ahead of his pain, and he’s unable to accept help when it’s offered—a tragic figure in this heartbreaking and important novel.


Book Cover Gin Turpentine Pennyroyal Blue

Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue, by Christine Higdon

Christine Higdon’s latest novel centres on freedom of choice. Like the other issue novels on my list, Gin, Turpentine deploys a large cast of characters to address complex social matters. The four McKenzie sisters—Georgina, Isla, Morag and Harriet-Jean—live in 1920s Vancouver. They’re adults as the novel opens, teenage Harriet-Jean just barely, and there are no important children in this book. There’s a reason for that. As the story opens, Isla nearly dies from a back street abortion, almost killed by a man we soon learn the police are seeking. The abortionist has left his signature on the inside of Isla’s thigh: a bruise from a vicious pinch he gave her after the procedure. Police have recently found the same bruise on the bodies of several women who have died from his unhygienic practices, although it’s Isla the police go after. Abortions are illegal, and since she’s unmarried, they regard her as a fallen woman, ripe for shaming and harassment even as she lies near death in hospital.

Yet Isla isn’t on her own. She has her sisters, and they’re a formidable if divided crew. Georgina is married to a businessman who bores her, having made a calculated decision to enter a safe marriage after the boy she loved was killed in the First World War. Georgina is the suffragist, the woman warrior in the family, and a serious drinker. Sensuous Morag starts the novel expecting her first child, and we soon realize that the husband she adores is also the man who got Isla pregnant. The conflicted Llewelyn loves both sisters. He’s also a policeman and a part-time rumrunner, moving illegal liquor to the United States, where Prohibition still reigns. Then there’s feisty teenage Harriet-Jean, who is discovering her attraction to women.

Strengthened by their bonds, the McKenzie sisters try to navigate their way toward freedom at a time when women are just beginning to sense the possibility of choice—and when men are trying to claw it back. No, not last week. Not in Texas, but in Vancouver 100 years ago. The novel is an intricate mesh of hopes and expectations played out among the sisters, and to leave you with a cliffhanger, not all of them survive.

By the way, Christine Higdon didn’t go to UBC. She studied creative writing in the continuing education department at the University of Toronto. And the Rue of the title is an astute and observant dog with opinions of her own.


Book Cover Far Creek Road

Learn more about Far Creek Road:

"With the charming and very funny nine-year-old Tink, Krueger has created an unforgettable character whose innocent curiosity busts through the societal conventions of early 1960s Canada. This is a masterful depiction of an atmosphere tense with fear and fuelled by grownup transgressions, where adult morality is contaminated by politics that tear communities apart." —Sheila Murray, award-winning author of Finding Edward.

It’s 1962, and Tink Parker is nine years old. She lives with her parents in a Vancouver suburb where many fathers are traumatized veterans of the Second World War and almost all the mothers are housewives. They believe they’ve earned secure and prosperous lives after the sacrifices they made during the war. But under the conformist veneer seethe conflicts and secrets that make the serenity of Grouse Valley precarious.

The story of the unraveling of the neighborhood is told by Tink, an eccentric child who is funny, observant, and impossibly nosy, with a tendency to blurt whatever’s on her mind. Bucolic at first, the story darkens as McCarthy-era paranoia infects the adults and spills over into the lives of the children. The parents of Tink’s best friend Norman are schoolteachers with leftist beliefs. When the Cuban Missile Crisis threatens, Norman’s parents face a witch hunt while the boy becomes a target of bullies. Tink does her best to defend Norman. But as she looks for help, Tink stumbles on a web of secrets―including evidence of a torrid affair―that will change their lives forever.

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