#289 Coming of Age on Salt Spring
First published April 18, 2018.
Mod ‘n Lavender: Salt Spring Island in the ‘60s
by John Grain
Kelowna: Tadpole Publishing, 2017.
$18.95 / 9780973863413
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
For some of us, remembering the 1960s is increasingly hindered by old age and failing memories. A few of us might prefer to forget parts of it. But if you’re willing, retired schoolteacher John Grain jogs the memory with this intimate guide to growing up on British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island.
Grain arrives on the island a tenderfoot 13-year-old. In this as-yet untrammelled paradise, he is confronted with challenges he had not faced in his previous urban existence in Victoria. Initially, he is stuck in a classroom with his father as his teacher, but he soon overcomes his discomfort. He meets his future wife, makes boyhood friends, and learns to fish, crab, hunt deer, ride a motorcycle, and run a boating service.
Part coming-of-age memoir and part anecdotal history, this is also a frank look back at the sources of his adult “morals, ethics and values” (p. 200). Grain shares his exploits in a place and time that to some epitomized the 1960s counterculture. And yet, as Grain explains in the back cover blurb, he lived in “blissful ignorance through what was arguably the most turbulent decade in history.”
He may have been unaware of the Summer of Love, but Grain showed a keen interest in his new home, a place brimming with history, and he provides brief backgrounds on the Hawaiian, First Nations, and African American families that once populated Salt Spring.
He merges that history with thoughts about the world events that occurred in the 1960s: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the boat people, the civil rights campaigns in the U.S., and the battles of the feminist movement. In the process, he passes along glimpses of the island’s responses to these far away cataclysms.
At a more personal level, we learn of his hopes for the future in those uncertain times, his intention to become a teacher when he grows up, and we witness his encounters with some of the misfits on the island.
They include draft dodgers, artists, hippies, angry hermits, and searchers looking for a better life. There is Daryl, the wharf rat who teaches Grain to jig for fish; Chico, the motorcycle riding back-to-the-lander; and Eddy, the hippie from California. Added to these are short accounts of various business owners, inventors, fishers, and ne’er do wells.
Along the way, we learn of the sometimes-cruel antics of teenagers. One involved Grain himself giving a school friend an exploding cigarette. Another involved a confrontation with some local bullies. Each held a life lesson for Grain and helped shape who he became.
Mod ‘n Lavender is not meant as a complete history of the island. Instead it recounts “a pivotal period in the transformation of the once sleepy and backward” island (p. 168). Grain credits the island’s weekly newspaper, the Gulf Islands Driftwood, with helping him recall that period, but it is his own honest eye for detail that gives these simple reminiscences heart and a certain gentleness.
Was it true, as Grain says, that islanders were “accepting, open-minded, understanding and peaceful” with regard to the changes wrought in this “trendy hub of the counterculture” (p. 168)? Perhaps it was true in the 1960s, but a visit to the island today might generate mixed views on that point.
As Grain himself found out when he revisited the island in 2014 “to bring this story to the conclusion I had envisioned” (p. 196), the island of his youth had become almost unrecognizable. The sources of his youthful adventures were gone forever.
Fortunately, with Mod ‘n Lavender he has captured something of that past and preserved it for future generations of island young people.
Ron Verzuh is a Canadian writer and historian who often visits Salt Spring Island. He is a retired national communications director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees and author of three books, including Radical Rag: The Pioneer Labour Press in Canada (Steel Rail Publishing, 1988), several monographs, and numerous articles on subjects ranging from trade unionism and politics to travel, literature, news media, film, and food.
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