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Book Reviews

Genius of Place: Writing About British Columbia

by David Stouck and Myler Wilkinson, eds.

Pack 200 years into 400 pages and much will be missed. David Stouck and Myler Wilkinson have strung together a glut of non-fiction writers – explorers, artists, ecologists – to reveal a big truth about British Columbia: The land is hard to hike? Rivers are empty? Aboriginal first-comers have been least-served? The editors propose “landscape as a metaphor for human consciousness,” but that thesis is trite, as vague as the book’s focus.

For some, the collection will teach the confounded history of the province. Ordered chronologically, it begins with explorers, then proceeds through colonizers and settlers and their resulting cultures. Only two first-nations voices are included, but many of the essays, journals, letters, oral histories, and profiles present aboriginal history as crucial and always present.

Though the editors attempt to contextualize each entry, their background know-ledge seems slight, their ways of reading limited. John R. Jewitt’s account of being held captive by the Nuu-chah-nulth in 1803 is presented as factual, though it probably did more to solve Jewitt’s money problems back home than it did to document evidence of torture and slavery. Humorist Eric Nichol is termed a “punster and a gag writer” with “no sustained comic vision,” while the often silly (but more hip) Bill Richardson is “whimsical and wise.”

Stouck and Wilkinson – who also compiled the uneven North by Northwest: British Columbia Short Stories – draw lovely invisible lines between nature writer Roderick Haig-Brown and the excellent work of ecologists Mark Hume and Terry Glavin, between Emily Carr and architect Arthur Erickson. But many contributions are simply dull. Entries by Richardson and Rita Moir are off-topic.

Feminist criticism may be passé, but here’s some: of the 30 writers included, only eight are women, and they comprise only 126 of 400 pages. Foremothers of B.C. writing – Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher and pioneer Susan Allison, among others – don’t make the cut and are also missing from the very poor selected bibliography. So much for “human consciousness.”