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Virtual Clearcut or the Way Things Are in My Hometown

by Brian Fawcett

It’s a common enough story: boy grows up in isolated small town, escapes to big city, never looks back. But author and former Globe and Mail columnist Brian Fawcett can’t quite leave his hometown of Prince George, B.C., behind. Virtual Clearcut chronicles four lengthy visits back to that town between 1990 and 2001, investigating Prince George’s development in the face of growing economic globalization.

The text builds on a connection between the Bowron River valley clearcut, so large it could once be seen from space, and nearby Prince George, both products of lofty dreams of prosperity that never materialized. To flesh out his story, Fawcett revisits old friends, chats with the locals, and indulges in the occasional bout of nostalgia.

What emerges, though, is a thoughtful account of dark forces operating in small towns across the country: communities fractured by the automobile and poor urban planning; local business and downtown cores decimated by big-box retailers developing cheap, peripheral land; the concentration of formerly local industry in large, ultinational corporations. The community here, Fawcett observes, has invariably favoured the commercial over the civic, and the community has now lost control.

Fawcett’s observations of Prince George locals, the Bowron clearcut, and the microcosm of the town are striking and astute. What’s more, he is relentlessly introspective. A book like Virtual Clearcut could have easily eroded into a messy, confessional memoir. Fawcett’s vivid inner life proves he is too inquisitive, too involved in trying to understand the process of civic disintegration and his own reactions to it, to permit such a mistake.

Fawcett crafts interesting characters out of friends and locals, avoiding both condescension and sentimentality (no small feat). His reflections on topics like Alexander Mackenzie and the B.C. Forest Service avoid easy answers but do not monopolize the text, which moves with surprising speed. Despite all the doom and gloom, Fawcett also manages to infuse his work with positivity. The clearcut does appear to be slowly recovering, after all, and there is hope that locals may one day stand up and fight for the once vibrant hinterland communities they inhabit.