#897 On the road with Rosemary
Down the Road: Journeys Through Small-town British Columbia
by Rosemary Neering
Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2019 (first published 1992, reprinted 2003)
$22.95 / 9781770503243
Reviewed by Diana E. French
Rosemary Neering is an accomplished author who began her writing career as a travel magazine contributor. Her visits to many rural areas of British Columbia were the inspiration for her book Down the Road, Journeys Through Small Town British Columbia. Originally published in 1991, reprinted in 1993, the current 2019 version has a new cover and incorporates a map illustrating Neering’s road trips. It also includes a new three-page foreword and one new black and white photograph. The book comprises 22 chapters of varying length, totalling 204 pages.
Down the Road describes three road trips to many small towns scattered across the central and southern regions of the province Neering made over a one-year period. Her goal was to paint a picture of rural life and detail the characteristics that distinguish it from the hustle and bustle of big city living: a sense of community, an appreciation for the surrounding natural landscape, and a slower pace of life. On a personal level, Neering, as a mid-life city dweller, hoped to discover though her explorations whether she would fit comfortably into the rural way of living (p. xiv).
Neering’s first journey begins on southern Vancouver Island, where she visits several small communities including Tahsis on the west coast and Malcolm Island located to the east. It incorporates a ferry trip to Prince Rupert, followed by stops in many small towns and Indigenous communities in the central and southern Interior of the province. After a westward drive though the mountains to Whistler and Squamish, Neering comes full circle back home to Victoria.
Commencing in Vancouver later that year, she then travels eastward to the Kootenays, following along the highway between Hope and Cranbrook, exploring the ghost towns of the West Kootenays and the settlements of the Rocky Mountain Trench, and eventually returning westward to Vernon and Kamloops before heading back home. Lastly, in her final journey undertaken in the late fall — against the advice of her family and friends — Neering ventures north through the Fraser Canyon to Williams Lake, westward across the Chilcotin, returning to Williams Lake, and then north to Prince George and down the Yellowhead Highway through McBride and Kamloops to end her final road trip in Merritt.
Neering adroitly intertwines information collected though observation, occasional participant observation, informal interviews and conversations with ordinary people met along the way, and archival research. Using her astute powers of observation, she paints vivid pictures of the varying landscapes she sees and describes the sometimes-challenging road conditions. She also has the uncanny ability to help the reader visualize the characters she engages with along the way. Often her stops are brief, but sometimes Neering finds herself in situations where she can participate in everyday life, enabling her to provide deeper insights into local life; for example, she enjoys an evening at the Legion “with the girls” in Kaslo, where she mingles with the locals while learning of the town affairs (p. 141).
Down the Road is also interspersed with many personal accounts and life histories both long and short, sometimes overly detailed, provided by individuals with whom Neering spoke in roadside cafes to give us further glimpses into small town life. Her archival research contributes significantly to our understanding of the history of British Columbia and the changing conditions people of many different backgrounds have experienced during their lifetimes in small rural communities.
Neering discovers that residing in rural British Columbia has its challenges along with many advantages. Living conditions in isolated areas can be arduous. Work, frequently limited to seasonal employment, can be difficult to access. Schooling for children is not always ideal. On several occasions Neering describes the “fishbowl nature” of life in small communities where everyone knows the details of other community members (pp. 105, 199). On the other hand, for those that appreciate the benefits, the beauty of the terrain, the fauna and flora (p. 160), the opportunities to enjoy the many activities the great outdoors has to offer, and the support of community members in times of need outweigh the challenges and limitations of rural life. Interfering outsiders may be viewed with suspicion, especially those with the power to make decisions about small town affairs when local residents often know what is best to solve community dilemmas.
On a number of occasions, Neering documents the realities of life for many First Nations. She describes the challenges of poverty and alcoholism of some Indigenous people in places like Fort St. James, noting that the impact of White people beginning with the fur trade has not gone well (pp. 57-58). On the other hand, the Secwepemc community of Alkali Lake is well known for its successful fight against alcohol abuse (p. 76). She visits some of the Gitxsan communities, noting the attraction of their totem poles and art to the ever-present tourist. She describes at greater length the impact residential schools have had on Indigenous peoples and their efforts to move forward for a better life. For example, the community of St. Mary’s has fought hard against the effects of the former Ktunaxa residential school, and the consequences of the maltreatment of students who were beaten for speaking their own language (p. 153). Now positive changes have occurred in the community with the establishment of the Ktunaxa Kinbasket School. Neering also reminds us of the difficulties many Indigenous people face in being torn between their communities and the outside world. Differences in value systems often make it challenging to deal with the array of social problems that confront them (p. 41).
Neering reminds us that British Columbia is a cultural mosaic of many ethnic groups who settled here at different times. The Russian Doukhobors arrived more than 100 years ago and established many villages in the Grand Forks area. While their villages have disappeared from the local landscape, and their communal way of living no longer exists, many Russian traditions still live on (p. 101). The influence of Quakers in the town of Argenta at the north end of Kootenay Lake is still reflected in the way community decisions are made (p. 131). Descendants of the Finns who came to Sointula on Malcolm Island a century ago to establish a Utopian colony still live there, and remnants of the culture and cooperative tradition still exist.
“On every main street of every small-town in British Columbia is a Chinese restaurant” (p. 80), Neering notes, an indication of the importance of the widespread contributions made by Chinese-Canadians to the growth and development of the province. More than 1000 Japanese, forced to move to Greenwood in 1942 when they were declared enemy aliens, have contributed much to community life over the years (pp. 99-102). Mining and other provincial industrial endeavours benefited, for example, from the work of the Portuguese who worked for Alcan (p. 29), and many others of European descent also contributed.
On several occasions, Neering shares a disdain for the stereotypical tourist with many residents of small towns. For example, in describing a particular group of American tourists at Fort Steele, “bus tourists pop out of doorways and scuttle for food” like cockroaches when the light is turned off (p. 156). In another instance, she describes in equally unflattering detail an array of tourists from many different backgrounds as they march from their bus to view the tourist destination of Tatakakkaw Falls (p. 164).
One of the unexpected contributions of Down the Road is its use of local histories to understand the present conditions of British Columbian small towns, how they became established based primarily on mining, fishing and forestry economies, and how they have changed through time. Neering notes that changes are on-going, exemplified by her observations of the community of Wells, near Barkerville, where the deterioration of many of the buildings had occurred since her previous visit, and changes were visible both in the appearances of the town’s well-known pub and in the nature of the clientele it served.
Twenty-eight years ago, when the author was out exploring the south and central regions of the province, the northern part of the BC interior was not as easy of access as it is today, which is perhaps this is why it is not included in the book. Also absent are the distinctive landscape and character of the small towns of the Okanagan Valley. After a bad experience in Keremeos on the fringe of the fruit-growing Okanagan, Neering “felt an attack of Okanagan dislike coming on” (p. 96) and consequently one of the most popular BC destinations is missing from the book.
In Down the Road: Journeys Through Small-town British Rosemary Neering has provided us with a book that well-written, entertaining, and thoughtful. The broad patterns she discerns still apply after 28 years. She accomplishes her goal of capturing what small towns in British Columbia have to offer, and what life is like for those who are fortunate enough to live in them. Paradoxically, when all is said and done, she also learned that life in BC’s small towns was not for her, although she will always “return again and again to the comforts” they have to offer (p. 204).
Diana E. French is currently Associate Professor Emerita in Anthropology in the Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus. Her research interests include applied anthropology and Indigenous issues, historical archaeology and settler history, and the anthropology of food and wine. She has conducted numerous anthropological and archaeological fieldwork projects in northern and western Canada, and has had the opportunity to work with many First Nations throughout the province of British Columbia as a cultural resource management consultant and researcher.
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