1417 Small town transition
by Maureen Brownlee
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2022
$22.95 / 9781550179309
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
It is 1995, and Beauty Creek is celebrating its 60th year amidst climate change and hydra-headed Neo-liberalism. Like most BC Interior towns, the hamlet (somewhere north of Clearwater and resembling Valemount) is in transition, its defining pillars under threat. The mountain pine beetle is wreaking havoc on the lumber industry, and the town’s major employer, the mill, is closed. At the same time, new technology and conglomeration are threatening the independence and very existence of local newspapers.
One alternative to which such communities turn is tourism. The question is, is the price of the change worth it? Carving a resort out of the mountainside entails “development” — and that gives rise to everything from tony condo subdivisions designed for outsiders to regulating and “cleaning up” the town, measures likely to jeopardize the very beauty being marketed. Moreover, previous projects, in equally pristine settings, have failed, the developers, with no sense of obligation to the community they were commodifying, pulling up stakes.
Beauty Creek samples the future when it incorporates and conformity ensues; new regulations out of Victoria make for cookie-cutter policies, but Beauty Creek is made of different batter. Into this shifting backdrop, Brownlee sets three characters at different life stages, each with longtime roots in the community. Middle-aged Maggie, who left Beauty Creek for university in Vancouver, returning only at the urging of her reporter husband, inherited the local newspaper upon his death five years ago. She barely keeps the paper and stationery supply store, set amidst increasingly vacant storefronts, afloat, and the temptation of a chain takeover beckons. Twenty-four-year-old high-school dropout Stevie got pregnant at fifteen, became a widow while still a child, and wound up a single mother working at the local café, until a computer course, good fortune, and Maggie’s big heart land her a clerical job at the Chronicle that leads to occasional writing assignments. Nash Malone, a senior still suffering the effects of the Depression and the Spanish Civil War, managed a relatively normal mid-life in Beauty Creek until the death of his Indigenous wife, Miriam, at which point he largely withdrew from society, subsisting economically by bartering and scavenging in the town dump — recycling cans and bottles, repairing bicycles, and the like — and surviving psychologically by writing — mostly for himself, but occasionally publishing poems in the Chronicle.
For a time, the interactions among the three protagonists are cooperative and mutually advantageous. Maggie not only takes a risk by employing Stevie; she also allows her young daughters to hang out at the office after school and fosters Stevie’s professional development by pointing her toward books that provide insight into Nash’s harrowing war experiences as background to the interview she assigns Stevie. Although Stevie’s novice-reporter questions pry too deeply for Nash’s comfort, the two become supportive neighbours: Nash proves an unlikely but positive male figure in her daughters’ lives, and Stevie becomes the sole reader of the manuscript of Nash’s war novel. Maggie willingly prints Nash’s poems, and sympathizes when he is forbidden from scavenging and ordered to clean up his yard. This is a microcosm of small-town interdependence.
However, Maggie’s “neutrality” precipitates the climax. Caught in an intricate web of loyalties to her late husband and her mayor boyfriend and uncertainties over her position on the future of the newspaper and the town, she avoids taking an editorial stand after the authorities move in on Nash’s yard. Stevie, in no uncertain terms, calls her out, and, soon, in a confessional editorial, Maggie acknowledges her complicity in officialdom’s intrusion into Nash’s life and takes decisive action on the newspaper’s future. Maggie learns to live with uncertainty and forsake the myth of objectivity her husband espoused. Yet, while Maggie and Stevie can repair their relationship, the damage to Nash is irreparable.
This novel is more a study of a culture than a character study; nonetheless, it would have benefitted from more interiority around the female protagonists. Nash’s mental state — as a product of both the town and the war — is well developed through flashbacks and excerpts of his novel that end some of the chapters and Cambium Blue itself. However, at times the motivations of the two female characters call out for deeper examination. For example, the vehemence of Stevie’s challenge of Maggie seems to come out of nowhere, and Maggie’s decisiveness might have unfolded more gradually.
Still, Cambium Blue is sociologically strong. Brownlee effectively delineates the hierarchies that exist within small towns, from the power of mayor and council through to the limbo status of formerly gainfully employed mill workers and the vulnerability of non conformists such as Nash. The outsiders are suitably villainous, although more nuance would have made for greater tension. My major puzzle is why, apart from Nash’s flashbacks to his life with Miriam, the community is so ethnically homogeneous, so blandly white. On the other hand, the author puts her nine years as founder and head of the Valley Sentinel to good use: the sub-culture of the newspaper office is truly absorbing, this reader’s favourite thread.
The title is both apt and intriguing. Cambium is the layer responsible for new cells and secondary growth. The novel explains that mountain pine beetles carry a fungus that spreads into the tree, facilitating their chewing through the cambium. The wood, though stained blue, is still structurally sound – if it is harvested soon enough – despite being downgraded on the market. However, if left unharvested, the wood cracks as it dries. I invite future readers to decide if the predatory developers can be equated to the mountain pine beetles — which, apparently, three decades on, have spread to northern BC and Alberta.
Cambium Blue invites comparison with other novels set in small Interior towns that have been published during this interminable pandemic; for example, Nick Tooke’s Depression-set The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt, beginning and ending in Ashcroft and circling the Interior, and, particularly, Josephine Boxwell’s Unravelling, set in two time periods, 1994 and 2018, in a village resembling Ashcroft, have common ground with Brownlee’s second novel. Readers looking for earlier antecedents to Cambium Blue will find them in Brownlee’s own Loggers’ Daughters (2013) – as well as Howard O’Hagan’s 1939 classic, Tay John.
Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University. Her scholarly publications (co-authored and edited and co-edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles) have focused on Canadian fiction, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her recent focus has been on maintaining a growth mindset through freelance writing and promoting third-age learning as a corrective to societal ageism. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy has recently reviewed books by Maria Reva, Elizabeth Haynes, Alice Munro, R.M. Greenaway, Barbara Black, J.G. Toews, Iona Whishaw, and Wayne Grady.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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