HARRIS, Christie (1907-2002)




Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Kidlit & Young Adult

"Born Celtic, I turned western" -- Christie Harris

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Children’s literature in British Columbia languished for about half a century, from the time Martha Douglas Harris gathered Cree stories and Cowichan stories for History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians (1901) until a second Harris—Christie—became the first writer to successfully relate Aboriginal myths and stories to young readers for Raven’s Cry (1966).

Born in New Jersey in 1907, Christie Harris was brought to Fernie, British Columbia, by her family of Irish immigrants in 1908, then onto the Shuswap area, then to the Fraser Valley. As Christie Irwin, she moved to Prince George to be in the vicinity of Thomas Arthur Harris, an RCMP constable she had known from a neighbouring farm in Surrey, leading to their marriage in 1932.

She wrote primarily for CBC and the Province’s women’s page until she adapted her radio work for her first book, Cariboo Trail (1957).

When her husband’s work as an immigration officer temporarily took the family to Prince Rupert in 1958, she agreed to undertake a series of school broadcast scripts on Coastal Indian cultures. “I discovered that clearly the artistic genius of the North West Coast had been Charles Edenshaw, Haida Eagle Chief Edinsa,” she wrote.

Harris’ prolific output might be largely overlooked today were it not for Raven’s Cry, an historical novel that traces the Edenshaw lineage, with illustrations by Bill Reid.

“Everyone except Bill [Reid] warned me that Edenshaw relatives would never tell their family stories to a white woman, a stranger,” Harris recalled. “I was actually afraid to let them know I was coming. What if they said, ‘Don’t bother!’? My husband and I arrived in Masset and Edenshaw’s daughter Florence Davidson was pointed out to me on the street. I rather anxiously introduced myself. And she said, ‘We’ve been expecting you. We were going to have a reception for you tonight at my house, but there's been a small fire. So we’re gathering at my son’s house.’”

Hers was the first book that Bill Reid illustrated, lending Harris’ work lasting credibility. Her other books are less distinguished. After Christie

Harris died in 2002, a B.C. Book Prize for best illustrated children’s book was inaugurated in her honour in 2003.


FULL ENTRY:

In 1998, Christie Harris received the fourth Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. Her career is important because she became the first writer to successfully relate Aboriginal myths and stories to young readers for commercial purposes. When her husband's work as an immigration officer temporarily took the family to Prince Rupert in 1958, she agreed to undertake a series of school broadcast scripts on Coastal Indian cultures. "I discovered that clearly the artistic genius of the North West Coast ahd been Charles Edenshaw, Haida Eagle Chief Edinsa," she wrote. Harris' ongoing fascination with Aboriginal mythology and art led to numerous books including Once Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1963), Once More Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1973), West with the White Chiefs (1965) and most notably Raven's Cry (New York: Atheneum, 1966), an historical novel which traces the Edenshaw lineage, with illustrations by Bill Reid. It was written after Harris conferred extensively with Edenshaw's daughter Florence Davidson. "Everyone except Bill warned me that the Edenshaw relatives would never tell their family stories to a white woman, a stranger," she claimed. Christie Harris received her second Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award in 1977 for Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses, one of her numerous retellings of folk material, and she also wrote a crime novel, Mystery at the Edge of Two Worlds (1978), about the theft of Native artefacts.

Christie Harris was born in Newark, New Jersey on November 21, 1907, one of five children in a family of Irish immigrants en route to Canada. The family arrived in British Columbia in early 1908, first to Fernie, then to the Shuswap area. When her father Ed Irwin fought in W.W. I, the family came to Vancouver, then operated a farm in Cloverdale. While living in the Fraser Valley, she sold her first newspaper reports to the New Westminster Columbian at age 12. After her father returned from the war, she frequently attended farmers' association meetings with him, then provided summaries for the local paper. "With part of her income," says her son Gerald Harris, "her delight was to go to a Cloverdale cafe and have tea with a ham sandwich of white bakery bread, machine sliced, much more elegant than homemade bread."

After graduation from Normal School, she taught school in Surrey at age 17; then she began writing stories for her pupils, at age 20, during a stint as a primary school teacher in Vancouver. The children's section of The Vancouver Daily Province purchased these stories and made her a regular contributor. Christie Irwin moved to Prince George to be in the vicinity of Thomas Arthur Harris, an RCMP constable she had known as a young man from a neighbouring farm in Surrey. They were married in 1932. Newly married at 24, Christie Harris had three babies within four years while living in White Rock; then she had two more children while living in the Lower Fraser Valley. Her five are named Michael, Moira, Sheilagh, Brian and Gerald. "When people ask why I use my family so often as life models and technical advisors," she wrote in 1977, "I always say it's because they won't sue or charge Mother. The truth is that they've always been more than willing to keep me straight, so they won't be embarrassed by what I turn out."

In her early years of marriage, Harris wrote primarily for the Province's women's page and also sent radio scripts to the CBC. With 24 hours notice, the CBC in Vancouver once commissioned her to provide a juvenile musical fantasy for the Coronation Day of King George VI -- she subsequently collaborated with composer Harry Biener for a one-hour program. Harris and Biener wrote seven collaborative works, projects which Harris now recalls fondly. For 20 years she was a prolific contributor to the CBC, providing hundreds of school broadcasts, an adventure serial, adult plays and humourous sketches "about the woman with five children, an old house, a neat husband and an ungovernable urge to write." In the 1950s she was also women's editor for the Abbotsford-Sumas-Matsqui local weekly paper (1952-58) and adapted her radio adventure serial for her first book, Cariboo Trail (1957). Harris won a Canada Council Children's Literature Prize for The Trouble with Princesses (1980), a 1973 Vicky Metcalf Award from the Canadian Authors Association recognizing her body of work, and an International Book of the Year Award for Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (1972).

Christie Harris died on January 5, 2002. A B.C. Book Prize for illustrated children's book has been named in her honour.

[There are approximately 400 B.C. authors of children’s books included on the abcbookworld reference site. With his series of 23 books for reluctant readers, Eric Wilson has been touted as Canada’s bestselling author for juveniles. Julie Lawson has published 26 books over a 20-year period. Most extraordinary are John Wilson’s 23 titles since 1995, many of which are well-researched historical works. Other notables include Sue Ann Alderson, Ann Blades, Alan Bradley, Norma Charles, Sarah Ellis, Dennis Foon, Nan Gregory, James Heneghan, Constance Horne, Polly Horvath, Shelly Hrdlitschka, Nancy Hundal, Carrie Mac, Ainslie Manson, Barbara Nickel, Cynthia Nugent, Sylvia Olsen, Kit Pearson, Mary Razzell, Don Sawyer, Andrea Spalding, Nikki Tate, Meg Tilly, Diane Tullson, Maggie de Vries, Anne Walsh, Betty Waterton, Irene N. Watts, Joan Weir, Paul Yee. To name only a few.] at 2010.

BOOKS:

Cariboo Trail (1957)
Once Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1963). Woodcuts by John Frazer Mills.
You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere (1964)
West with the White Chiefs (1965)
Raven's Cry (New York: Atheneum, 1966)
Confessions of a Toe-Hanger (1967)
Forbidden Frontier (1968)
Let X Be Excitement (1969)
Figleafing Through History: The Dynamics of Dress (1971, with Moira Johnston)
Secret in the Stlalakum Wild (McClelland & Stewart, 1972)
Mule Lib (1972, with Tom Harris)
Once More Upon a Totem (New York: Atheneum, 1973)
Sky Man on the Totem Pole (McClelland & Stewart, 1975)
Mouse Woman and the Vanished Princesses (McClelland & Stewart, 1976)
Mouse Woman and the Mischief Makers (McClelland & Stewart, 1977)
Mystery at the Edge of Two Worlds (New York: Atheneum, 1978)
Mouse Woman and the Muddle-heads (McCelleland & Stewart, 1979)
The Trouble with Princesses (1980)
The Trouble with Adventurers (1982)
Something Weird Is Going On (Orca, 1994)

[BCBW 2010]

Raven's Cry
essay



When Bill Reid recently autographed a book for Christie Harris, he wrote, "To Christie, whose 'Raven's Cry' has become one of the strongest voices speaking for the people of Haida Gwai and their neighbours." Similarly; the director of the National Museum of Man, George F. MacDonald, has inscribed a copy of his book on Ninstints, "To Christie Harris, whose Raven's Cry led me to Kiusta and began a journey that eventually involved every Haida village and my book on Haida Monumental Art.”It also resulted in the dedication of four of those villages as National Historic Sites and one as a World Heritage Site -Ninstints." Born in 1907 and raised on a Fraser Valley farm, Harris had no such purposes in mind when she published her best known book in 1966. "The book has always been reviewed as a historical novel. But it never occurred to me that it was a novel. I was just telling the story of the people who produced Charles Edenshaw, telling the story of a line of great chiefs who were all artists." Today it is not uncommon to find hardback copies of Christie Harris' out of-print Raven's Cry displayed in glass cases in Queen Charlotte Islands hotels, wearing $50 price tags. Here is the story behind the story of Raven's Cry; in Christie Harris' own words.

By Christie Harris
THE GENESIS OF RAVEN'S CRY DATES BACK more than thirty years, back before even the flower children of the 60's had discovered the Misty Isles. At that time, with one book published, I wanted to concentrate on children's books. I was phasing out a twenty year career in scriptwriting and broadcasting for CBC radio programs. But when my husband's work took us to Prince Rupert, I agreed to do a series of school broadcast scripts on 'those great old Indian cultures'.

I found myself eager for almost total immersion in research, both in the field and in books. The West Coast mythology was marvellous and the art was unique. I discovered that clearly the artistic genius of the North West Coast had been Charles Edenshaw, Haida Eagle Chief Edinsa. Edenshaw's work was treasured in the world's great museums. Yet he had died in poverty and obscurity. I could not find out enough reliable information about him to devote a whole program to him. This bothered me. That's when I told myself I should write his biography. I left Prince Rupert and wrote three more books. By 1964, I was ready to do that biography. Bill Reid agreed to be my art consultant as long as I was willing to sit in his studio so that he could get on with his own work while he told me about his 'Great-uncle Charlie', his alter-ego, and about the classicism of Haida art. The Canada Council gave me a grant to cover his fee.

Everyone except Bill warned me that Edenshaw relatives would never tell their family stories to a white woman, a stranger. I was actually afraid to let them know I was coming. What if they said, "Don't bother!"? My husband and I arrived in Haida (Masset) and Charles Edenshaw's daughter Florence Davidson was pointed out to me on the street. I rather anxiously introduced myself. And she said, 'We've been expecting you. We were going to have a reception for you tonight at my house, but there's been a small fire. So we're gathering at my son's house."

I think it was the shock of the errors in the brief Charles Edenshaw entry in the National Museum booklet I showed them that swung the decision; even the National Museum photograph of Edenshaw was of somebody else. Florence said she would answer my questions. (A teenager at that gathering was her grandson, Robert Davidson, now another great Haida artist). So every morning our hotel packed a picnic basket for us; we picked up Robert and Florence Davidson; and while my husband walked and talked with her husband, Florence sat in spots that stirred old memories and told me wonderful tales of how it had been in the old days on Haida Gwai. A highranking and gentle Haida lady, Florence was a wonderfully artiailate informant. Many of the best tales concerned the two chiefs who had preceded Edenshaw, both of whom were also artists. Charles Edenshaw had been a driven artist, driven to record in wood and argillite, gold and silver, a great culture that was dying. How could I explain his drive without showing how the culture had been before his time?

I eventually decided Raven's Cry could not be a biography. It had to be a three-generation saga, a tragedy of culture contact. Then I had to be in Victoria to put all the. stories into historical context because Victoria was where I had easy access to the archives and the museum and to Wilson Duff, the Provincial Anthropologist who was a noted Haida scholar. We took a beach house on Cordova Bay for a year. There the writing of that book became almost mystical; again and again I was convinced that some old Haida spirit was helping me.

Watching the book grow, my New York editor kept saying, "Can't you persuade Bill Reid to illustrate it?" I kept asking him and he kept answering, "I'm not an illustrator." Bill Reid came to Victoria to go through the complete manuscript. He read it in silence, laid it down and said, 'That's not bad. I'll illustrate it." Then he went out to his car for the exquisite silver Killer Whale pin he presented to me. That I treasure, as I treasure the unique illustrations he did for Raven's Cry --illustrations that will no doubt continue to be an inspiration to many young carvers involved in the Renaissance of Haida Art. I'm very sad that the book is currently out-of-print."

[Summer/BCBW 1989]