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Western Lights: Fourteen Distinctive British Columbians

by Lisa Hobbs Birnie

Lisa Hobbs Birnie is a miniaturist of no small distinction, but Western Lights is a very uneven collection of portraits.

This is to be expected when a writer collects 14 diverse personalities; nevertheless, the distance between the few coastal mountains we see here and the valleys is great.

Birnie’s brief introduction suggests that the binding theme is the individual’s desire to break with the past and to come in quest of a better life. She sees these self-starting individuals as ones who have “frontier values” and the Pacific Rim as “the edge of a new frontier.” Furthermore, the subjects are people whose names are known and they have, Birnie says, influenced the way British Columbians think.

Well, maybe, but there seems to be little method to Birnie’s selection and no attempt to bring this hodgepodge of portraits together as a book. Rather, the pieces read like magazine profiles. Can Western Lights II, III, and IV be far behind? Birnie should have held off publishing for a year or two and sought other “personalities” who might have inspired her more. Certainly, we learn little about Bill Vander Zalm, Jack Munro, Vicki Gabereau, Rick Hansen, actress Nicola Cavendish, restaurateur Umberto Menghi, bookseller Celia Duthie, author L.R. Wright, futurist Frank Ogden, artist Myfanwy Pavelic, and environmentalist Vicky Husband that we need to know.

That said, the profiles of Svend Robinson, Joy Kogawa, and Roy Vickers are worth the price of the book, and point to what Birnie can do.

Her writing on Svend Robinson is particularly successful. It’s surely not difficult to get Svend to talk about his favourite subject, but his recounting of his painful early and middle years is deeply moving.

But Birnie adds her voice to his, making one wish she presented this “group portrait with lady” more often. She’s not afraid to see him as “didactic and self-righteous,” often speaking with “a clerical aura,” his speech “squeaky clean.” She’s not afraid to question “the debatable virtue of his ‘coming out.’ And her closing comments on his talents and career (“That’s Svend. Take a valid point and stretch it until it’s invalid”) place him in a broader perspective than his self-serving words permit. Birnie needs to put more of herself in her portraits of others. She certainly has an intuitive sense of what Robinson is all about.

Another fine painting is her profile of Joy Kogawa. The author of Obasan gives the impression of her life as an ongoing wrestling with angels. Her moral and philosophical struggle to find “a redemptive quality” to life is memorable. And her incisive dismissal of books of fluff, such as The Celestine Prophecy, is a necessary antidote to the easy spirituality of the “new age.” This woman works hard for what she gets.

But it is Birnie’s picture of Roy Vickers (“Artist on a Vision Quest”) that is most revealing. Vickers speaks candidly about the chaos of his life and his mistaken belief that once he was honoured as an artist “he would be all right.” (In fact, for many, the reverse is true.) Vickers’ harrowing tale of chaos, addiction, and profound psychological suffering portray a man who worked hard on his art, but did “nothing for his soul.” It’s no wonder that many of his paintings are so popular: they show a professional skill but no deep understanding of the self. The truly difficult work is to combine the life and the art. If Vickers has truly recognized and come to terms with his inner demons, his future work will be a revelation. And, if that happens, there will be little doubt in my mind that Lisa Birnie’s profile in Western Lights will have played a part.