1141 Kate Work of Point Ellice
by Vanessa Winn
Victoria: Oakheart Press, 2020
$24.95 / 9781777040802
Reviewed by Valerie Green
Trappings takes place in the early colonial days of British Columbia and excellently portrays those challenging times — most especially for women.
For those not familiar with Victoria’s history and the many intertwining fur-trading families connected to the Hudson’s Bay Company at that time, the first part of the book might be confusing. It reads more like creative non-fiction than a novel as it mentions a plethora of those family names without explaining exactly who they are.
However, once author Vanessa Winn zones in on Catherine (Kate) Wallace’s story, it begins to read more like a novel describing for the reader many intense scenes of childbirth, the deaths of infants, and the plight of women who have no say in any matters of importance and are mere appendages on the arms of their menfolk.
Kate (Work) Wallace was the sixth daughter of Chief Factor John Work and the wife of Charles Wentworth Wallace. Kate and Charles were the first owners of Point Ellice house along the Gorge Arm. It is extremely meaningful to hear their story and the tragic part they played in the history of Point Ellice House, which is usually portrayed first and foremost as the O’Reilly home. Today Point Ellice is an historic museum.
The author begins her story with the following paragraph and this alone sums up the tragedies that lie ahead for Kate (Work) Wallace.
A fur trader might provide his daughter with the trappings of success, but even a Chief Factor could not free her of wedlock, once caught in the matrimonial snare. Neither could he revoke a will, nor an indenture, from beyond the grave. Thus when Chief Factor John Work died, his daughter Kate’s share of his immense Victoria estate was left largely in her husband’s reckless, mercantile hands.
Kate had married Charles Wallace when she was only eighteen, knowing very little about her husband’s family back east and why he and his mother had moved west to Victoria. As a wedding present, Kate’s father, the Chief Factor, had given her land along the Gorge Arm where they built a small “cottage” in which they hoped to raise their family. Kate loved living there although she soon faced great personal loss — her first son and daughter both died in infancy and later her second son also dies. And, it was not long before her husband began making many bad decisions and investments causing them to eventually lose their home and most of its contents. The couple then become embroiled in conflict between two judges, Needham and Begbie, as their inevitable bankruptcy case is fought out in the courts.
Kate is determined to protect her surviving daughter, Eliza, from all of this and seeks solace with her own family at Hillside Farm and from friends and her connections to the Douglas family. But there are still many family secrets to unravel and this is the core of Trappings.
In Vanessa Winn’s first book The Chief Factor’s Daughter (published by Touchwood Editions in 2009) she tells the story of Margaret Work, Kate’s older sister, and Trappings is really a sequel to that. The daughters were born to an Irish father and a Métis mother and are considered the upper class within the fur-trade community — but not so by the new settlers in the colony. Snobbery and racism soon run rife.
Once again in Trappings, the author takes the reader inside that colonial world of boating excursions, picnics, balls and theatrical evenings, which paint a contrasting picture to the tragedies of infant death that Kate must suffer with little support from her husband.
Vanessa Winn’s vivid scenes are beautifully depicted, especially the ones where Kate feels a strong connection to her long-dead grandmother. Although she does not remember her grandmother in real life, her dreams and visions are strong and she longs to know more about her. She is often aware of her grandmother’s helpful presence in her times of sadness, but many in her family are reluctant to talk about her. These secrets and those of her husband’s family, the Wentworth-Wallaces, become painful and hard for Kate to grasp. As if all these compounded losses and worries are not enough to bear, Kate must also face her own failing health. Happiness seems elusive for her but Kate’s tragic story is presented by Winn admirably and with hope.
Trappings is an important and worthwhile piece of history which Vanessa Winn has undertaken with care. I particularly like the quotes at the beginning of each chapter plus a more than adequate bibliography, a list of unpublished sources, together with a list of newspapers and Journals. My only criticism would be the size of the font, which I feel should have been larger to make for easier reading.
Vanessa Winn was born in London, England, but now resides in Victoria. She also writes poetry and teaches Argentine tango when not doing historical research for her books.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie has recently reviewed books by Edeana Malcolm, Janie Chang, Gina McMurchy-Barber, Eric Walters, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Alan Twigg, and Leslie Howard.
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