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Fiction General

Downriver Drift

by (author) Tim Bowling

Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.
Initial publish date
Jan 2000
General, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2000
    List Price

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In the middle of a March night nearly thirty years ago, a heavy fog rolls in off the Gulf of Georgia to smother a small fishing town at the mouth of the Fraser River. Ominous and unsettling, the fog sets the scene for a compelling series of events that will forever alter the town and the people who live there - especially the Mawsons, one of the many families whose survival depends on the rollercoaster fortunes of BC's commercial fishing industry.

Tense and timely, and set against the backdrop of one of the world's great rivers, Downriver Drift celebrates and mourns a traditional way of life that is rapidly disappearing. Bowling draws on the mysterious, powerful life cycle of the Pacific salmon to create a mythic narrative of human discovery, loss, conflict and forgiveness. With a poet's eye for detail and a storyteller's instinct for drama, he paints an unforgettable portrait of west coast fishing village, a world that has never been more stirringly represented in Canadian fiction.

About the author

Tim Bowling has published numerous poetry collections, including Low Water Slack; Dying Scarlet (winner of the 1998 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for poetry); Darkness and Silence (winner of the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry); The Witness Ghost; and The Memory Orchard (both nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award). He is also the author of three novels, Downriver Drift (Harbour), The Paperboy's Winter (Penguin) and The Bone Sharps (Gaspereau Press). His first book of non-fiction, The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture (Nightwood Editions), was shortlisted for three literary awards: The Writers' Trust Nereus Non-Fiction Award, the BC Book Prizes' Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the Alberta Literary Awards' Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-Fiction. The Lost Coast was also chosen as a 2008 Kiriyama Prize "Notable Book." Bowling is the recipient of the Petra Kenney International Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Award and the Orillia International Poetry Prize. Bowling was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. A native of the West Coast, he now lives in Edmonton Alberta. His latest collection of poetry is Tenderman (Nightwood), due out in fall 2011.

Tim Bowling's profile page

Excerpt: Downriver Drift (by (author) Tim Bowling)

Five days passed. Now the nights crackled under their trellised galaxies and the air tarnished the bright-silver bodies of the rushing salmon. Now the corncobs had fattened and threatened to burst their husks like boys' shoulders in outgrown suits. Now the river and its catacombing sloughs remembered the glacial touch and the paddles and the armstrokes and the cries of the coast's human dead. And now darkness fell over the bloodfat evening light like an executioner's hood. Everything became night and pregnant silence. The heart copied the sun and went down in the body, and the body became driftwood on the same charged current.

Fishermen unable to sleep floated through the streets and along the riverbanks, their necks harnessed to the current. Some carried vials of battery acid to pour on the nets of scabs, while others paced the wharf beside their own boats, resisting the urge to throw their reputations away just to have that cold silver weight their palms. And every night, sirens rent the stillness, as something else - a netshed, a pile of fishboxes beside a cannery, a boathouse - went up in flames. Always now, somewhere in the kerosene black of the first hours after midnight, a fire would build silently until it finally raged to life and screamed awake the mute bedrooms of the town.

The river had opened again two days after Raskin had first gone out. And this time he was not the only fisherman to break the strike. The word had spread not only about his scabbing, but also about how many fish he'd hauled in. As a result, when the canneries held firm to their last offer, some non-union fishermen decided the risk of being blackballed was worth taking. As each day passed without a settlement, and the Stuart run peaked, fishermen eyed each other suspiciously, with a half-concealed hope in their bloodshot eyes, as if waiting for someone to say "Ah, what the hell, might as well make a set before they're all gone."

But no one would say it. Most just muttered into their fidgeting hands and tried to convince themselves that the strike would be settled any minute and that they wouldn't be forced into making a decision that would cost them their self-respect.

Meanwhile, the scabs were harassed, on the river and in the town. The government, at the request of the canners, sent police patrols onto the river to protect the men who were fishing, but after a while the protection wasn't necessary. Few of the strikers could stomach being on the river while others were hauling in fish, and fewer still believed so firmly in the union's position that they were prepared to face arrest. Slowly, hour by hour, the solidarity of the strike was dissolving under the magnetic pull of the salmon and the growing sense that the gillnetters were being sacrificed for the sake of the seiners. Only the older fishermen and a few of their sons held out with any conviction.

The town no longer moved in rhythm with the events of the fishery. The local newspaper decried the violence of the strikers, accused them of setting the fires, and called for the police to start making arrests. Much of the citizenry either agreed or was indifferent, the world of the river already fading into the clamour and rush of the daily commute to Vancouver. And for those who wanted a fresh salmon, one could always be bought on the black market the natives conducted through their ceremonial food fishery.

On the sixth day, there was a change. The union circulated word of a meeting to be held in Chilukthan Harbour that evening at nine o'clock. The Mawsons and all the remaining strikers could hardly contain their hopes. Vic and Corbett went out into the yard after supper and sat by the fire. All through the meal, they had speculated on whether the companies had made another offer or whether the union was just trying to keep its membership behind the strike. Despite the scabbing and the big catches, the majority of fishermen had remained tied up, so the canneries, feeling the pinch, might very well be wanting to settle.

Editorial Reviews

"I was a bit apprehensive about reading [Tim Bowling's] first novel, Downriver Drift, after having enjoyed his poetry so much. I was not disappointed. Living in a British Columbia fishing community for 14 years, I found this book enlightening and engaging. . . . This is a truly British Columbian novel, not to be missed."

"Tim Bowling is one of the few BC writers who understand they inhabit an area of almost mythic beauty and history. And it is Bowling's power as a poet - he's published three collections - that comes into play in Downriver Drift, his first novel. . . . If you love the Fraser, if you are curious to know about the lives of local fishermen, you could hardly do better than read this book.
-Bruce Serafin, Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun

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