#765 A tale of the West Kootenay

Mountain Blues
by Sean Arthur Joyce

Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2018
$19.95 / 9781988732305

Reviewed by Caroline Woodward

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“Well, I’m a reporter just new in town. Looking for work.”

So begins Roy Breen’s introduction to life in El Dorado, a small village in the West Kootenays. Breen’s words are also his introduction to his new employer, to the love of his life, and to a new career of reporting on inspired community resistance to centralized decision-making. While covering stories of all descriptions for The Mountain Echo, Roy Breen recovers from a hectic fifteen years as a Vancouver reporter. He’d paid his journalistic dues there only to be shunted away from a City Hall beat promotion by a lesser-paid cub reporter, no thanks to a change in ownership in the early years of a leaner, meaner millennium. Fed-up with this corporate treatment, Breen quits and heads back to the B.C. Interior where he was born and raised. He and his cat spend some quality camping time roaming through four of B.C.’s six mountain chains before ending up in an old silver-mining village beside a glacier-fed lake, remarkably resembling New Denver merged with Silverton, in the Slocan Valley. The lyrical valley and village descriptions will make many readers want to quit their own stuffy, city-trapped jobs and move there themselves.

Aerial view of New Denver (postcard), circa 1980
Art Joyce. Photo by Juscha Grunther

Moreover, The Mountain Echo, his new employer, still pays its writers and actually employs a proofreader and fact checker, which, along with reference librarians, have been dismissed by metro dailies in Vancouver and elsewhere. But then the odds of running into the main antagonists at last night’s meeting en route to the village Post Office is much higher in El Dorado as well, and the new reporter in town has to tread carefully and tactfully.

The first major issue is the shocking announcement that the El Dorado Hospital will be shut down within weeks. Vans arrive, in a startling display of efficiency from the centralized health authority, to remove vital X-ray equipment. But the villagers are resourceful veterans of blockade lines and have organized a telephone tree which loops around the communities dependent on the emergency ward and the doctors and the extended care wing for their bedridden elders. Volunteers arrive at the lakeside hospital by the dozens and stay there round the clock.

We are introduced to the many and varied forms of peaceful resistance from individual hunger strikes to protest “crawls” – yes, not walks, but crawls, which are more commonplace in religious approaches by supplicants near cathedrals in South America, who fall to their knees as they cross stony plazas. We go behind the scenes to understand how difficult it is for a level- headed coordinator to deal with highly individualistic types who threaten violence and sabotage, which would threaten the credibility of the entire protest. We also understand more about the ethical and professional constraints on our reporter-narrator, who has always tilted to the side of the underdog — and was reprimanded for it by the big city daily. But here he puts a writerly foot wrong once and is hollered at most profanely by the normally level-headed organizer herself, a statuesque beauty who is a natural leader in a community populated with feisty women and eccentric men. We also get to meet the public relations bureaucrat from the regional health authority who must deliver the bad news about the hospital closure. He, as you might suspect, gets his comeuppance.

Main Street, New Denver, looking west to the Valhallas. Courtesy Village of New Denver
Art Joyce. Photo by Anne Champagne

Throughout it all, Sean Arthur Joyce uses a light, deft touch for topics that could be heavily righteous slogging. His characters are 3-D West Kootenay classics and his dialogue is a delight to “hear” as it is so realistic in its rhythms that it sets each distinct character apart from the next: no easy feat. The humour, gentle and tolerant, reminds us that when we live in a small community, the most sound advice would be: Let your words be gentle in case they come back to bite you. For a journalist, this means striving for fairness, depth, and objectivity, and not “piling on” the blame. Not easy either in our era of internet trolls rushing to judgement, propelled by vindictive and ultimately irresponsible tweets, unfettered by fact-checking or any form of editing.

The love story that unfolds in Mountain Blues is also a delight. I cheered on the middle-aged lonely hearts who are instantly attracted and find each other to be excellent company in the midst of the strife afflicting the villagers. The cafes in El Dorado serve great coffee, even if the wait-staff tend to editorialize on the hapless new reporter’s latest efforts; and the mountain water is sublimely pure, the basis for all great coffee, lest we forget.

Pack your bags and head for the West Kootenay mountains, especially the Valhalla Range, with a copy of the big-hearted Mountain Blues in hand. It is best read aloud en route by kindred spirits — especially those in need of the glorious wilderness and of Joyce’s El Dorado, the resolutely alive, no-nonsense, “stand up to protect it or lose it forever” village that beckons from within its pages.

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An earlier version of this review appeared on the reader-based Goodreads site where author Caroline Woodward, a regular reviewer for BC Bookworld, posts random reviews of good books which don’t get enough attention, when she has free time. Woodward reviews work on Goodreads by colleagues like New Denver-based Art Joyce, as New Denver is the village where (full disclosure) she and Jeff George founded and ran The Motherlode Bookstore for eight years. Permission was granted to The Ormsby Review to use this unpaid version of her Goodreads review. Caroline also blogs at Woodward on Words.

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