1069 Island women in the spotlight
On Their Own Terms: True Stories of Trailblazing Women of Vancouver Island
by Haley Healey
Victoria: Heritage House, 2020
$9.95 / 9781772033250
Reviewed by Lynne Bowen
Vancouver Island attracts a certain type of person: a person who has chosen to live separate from convention, or from family, or from boredom, or from the past or from danger. It is as if the inhabitants of this island feel protected by the mere fact that the Salish Sea is between them and the rest of the world. This applies to people who were born on the Island too and to First Nations People whose predecessors have lived on this Island for thousands of years. At some point in the past, an ancestor made the decision to come to the Island and stay.
One might also assume that in each case it was a man, whether Indigenous or settler, who made the decision to live on the Island. But in On Their Own Terms: True Stories of Trailblazing Women of Vancouver Island, Haley Healey shows us that this is not necessarily true. Some remarkable women may well have been following a man or searching for a man when they came to the Island, but Healey’s trailblazing women may also have come to live their lives without a man, or to live life better than they would have if a man were making all the decisions.
It isn’t hard to find these women in the historical sources, but the amazing thing is that there are so many women who qualify. I have researched and written about several such women, but most of the women in this slim but thoroughly researched book were unknown to me.
Healey takes the reader from the southern tip of the Island to the northernmost reaches, from the civilized to the primitive, from Victoria to Cape Scott and down the wild and woolly outer Pacific coast. In the first chapter, photographer Hannah Maynard was very much a creature of Victoria, riding her bicycle around the city to record the conventional and the influential and, in her capacity as the official police photographer, the criminal. Her skill with photographic equipment is illustrated on the cover of the book where she has created the illusion that three Hannah Maynards are taking tea together and one of them is pouring milk on another one’s head.
As Healey progresses up the Island, the women she writes about become more unconventional. Emily Carr’s artistic brilliance is portrayed against a background of daily survival and masculine prejudice; sailor Wylie Blanchet supports her family in her widowhood by exploring the coast and selling her written descriptions of their travels; farmer Kimiko Murakami’s encounter with racism and internment did not in the end prevent her from returning to her farm on Salt Spring Island; master mariner and engineer Dorothy Blackmore spent her entire life on the salt chuck “invading traditional male domains,” as one source described it.
On Their Own Terms also shows the limitations that female physiology and society’s rules placed on these women. The unplanned pregnancy, the nurturing and protection of children, the disparity between the physical strength of women and men — none of these factors prevented these remarkable women from thriving.
But I have some problems with the book that stem mostly from my own career as a researcher and teacher of non-fiction writing. Healey has done an impressive job of tracking down historical and archival sources of information about each of her subjects, but sometimes she includes too many facts and they get in the way of the narrative. The reader wants a story, not a compendium of every fact that has been gleaned.
I take issue, too, with Healey’s statement in her introduction, that “whenever possible, I interviewed the woman’s family to get the most accurate story.” Interviewing family might well yield more facts, but in my experience families sometimes have a limited view of a relative’s life. Family stories tend not to be in context with the times they are describing, and the repeated telling of stories can result in a mythical version of a historical encounter. I call it “the stalwart pioneer” version of history, which seems to say that all our predecessors, especially the ones related to us, had no human weaknesses.
I would also like to pick a quarrel with the decision made by either author or publisher to describe all the women in the book as “wild.” Many adjectives spring to mind when reading about Healey’s remarkable women — brave, persevering, adventurous — but not always wild. “Some were gentle in their wildness, discreet in their rebellion,” reads the back cover; the introduction subtitle is “Dare to Become Wild and Authentic,” and the text refers to “seventeen wild women.” The repetitive use of “wild” felt like a marketing ploy.
And some of the women had only a tenuous connection to Vancouver Island. Aloha Wanderwell, whose splendid name alone might have qualified her for inclusion in the book, was raised in Qualicum Beach as Idris Hall, but spent the rest of her life elsewhere in the world. Fortunately for her Island credentials, her sister, Miki, returned to the Island to live in Merville.
In contrast, I was particularly drawn to the First Nations women described in the book, who managed to make their mark on history while preserving the traditions of their people. Healey salutes Elizabeth Quocksister and, in the case of Jane Constance Cook and Mary Ann Gyves also gives us their traditional names: Ga’axsta’las and Tuwa’hwiye Tusium Gosselim respectively. Remarkable women all three, and because of Healey’s book the non-Indigenous reader may begin to recognize two of them at least by their indigenous names.
As Haley Healey says in her conclusion, “Vancouver Island has always been a special place.” It is the people who make it so, and the seventeen women portrayed in this book are highlights in the Island story.
Lynne Bowen has a Masters degree in Western Canadian History and has written seven books of popular history — Boss Whistle: The Coal Miners of Vancouver Island Remember; Three Dollar Dreams; Muddling Through: The Remarkable Story of the Barr Colonists; Those Lake People: Stories of Cowichan Lake; Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines, Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia and Those Island People — which have won several awards including the Lieutenant Governorʼs Medal for Writing B.C. History, the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize, and the F.G Bressani Literary Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She taught creative writing at UBC for fourteen years and lives in Nanaimo. Editor’s note: Lynne Bowen has also reviewed a book by Anne Wheeler and Adriana Davies for The Ormsby Review.
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