Author Tags: 1900-1950, Fiction
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Frederick Niven was British Columbia’s first professional man of letters and the first significant literary figure of the Kootenays. He lived by his wits, as an independent writer, mainly on the outskirts of Nelson, from 1920 until 1944. Although some of his more than 40 titles were written to keep the wolf from the door, such as Cinderella of Skookum Creek (1916), by contrast, Niven’s collection of 16 short stories called Above Your Heads (1911) consisted exclusively of stories rejected by editors who believed their content would be “over the heads” of readers.
Born to Scottish parents in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1878, Frederick Niven was raised in Glasgow, from age five. At age 20, Niven was sent to the dry B.C. Interior for treatment of a lung ailment. He trekked throughout the Okanagan Valley and Kootenays, then worked at the Hastings Sawmill in Vancouver in 1900. After returning to Scotland, he began publishing travel accounts in newspapers and magazines. His first novel, The Lost Cabin Mine (1908), was a forgettable potboiler set in the Canadian west. After marrying Mary Pauline Thorne-Quelch in 1911, he returned to western Canada on commissions as a freelance writer. Rejected for military service, Niven wrote for the British Ministry of Information during WWI. After three more novels, he was threatened with a serious heart ailment and moved to Willow Point, six miles outside of Nelson, B.C., in 1920.
Two of Niven’s historical novels, The Flying Years (1935) and Mine Inheritance (1940), are set on the prairies, but most of his work is set in either Scotland or British Columbia. In his final novel, The Transplanted (1944), Niven depicts the rise of B.C.’s interior ranching, lumbering and mining industries and their effects on a broad range of characters. Two transplanted men from Glasgow, Robert Wallace and Jock Galbraith, maintain a strong bond despite difficulties. Robert Wallace is a shrewd visionary who becomes a builder of Canada, opening up the town of Elkhorn.
Historian and critic Charles Lillard’s favourite Niven novel, Wild Honey (1927), is actually a fictionalized memoir, a work of hobo literature, a precursor to the sensibilities of B.C. writers such as Al Purdy, Patrick Lane and Jim Christy. The narrator meets two hobos, Slim and Hank, who work with him at a gravel pit near Savona. Niven writes, “Above the rasp of the shovels with which we worked astern of the big, rhythmically-coughing steamshovel, I would hear the murmur of the Thompson River lapsing past; and that murmur, somehow, was worth much weary labour to hear.” The threesome cash their pay cheques at North Bend, then wander south to border towns below Kamloops. Long out of print, Wild Honey offers some splendid writing, akin to that of Jack London or George Orwell—directly based on Niven’s own travels. Lillard named it one of the three best early B.C. novels, along with Hubert Evans’ Mist on the River and Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John.
Niven died of a heart attack in 1944. He remains an under-recognized as one of Canada’s first “non-colonial” authors.
Frederick Niven was a trailblazer, British Columbia’s first ‘man of letters.’ He lived by his wits, as an independent writer, mainly in the Kootenays, from 1920 until 1944. Some of his than forty books were literary; other titles, such as Cinderella of Skookum Creek (1916), kept the wolf from the door. In contrast, his collection of sixteen short stories called Above Your Heads (1911) consisted exclusively of stories that were rejected by editors who believed their content would "over the heads" of readers.
By the time he died of a heart attack in 1944, he had become a leading man of Canadian letters among the country's first generation of "non-colonial" authors. Although he identified with British Columbia as his home, rather than viewing life in Western Canada as a colonialist, he remained connected to the Old World. His fiction is roughly divided in two halves between New World and Old World settings. He once wrote, "Scotland is a place in the sun and the rain, but it is more than that; it is a kingdom of the mind ... The old love for it endures, whatever the reason or necessity for living elsewhere."
Born to Scottish parents in Valparaiso, Chile on March 31, 1878, Niven was taken to Glasgow at age five where he attended Hutcheson's Grammar School and the Glasgow School of Art. He worked briefly in his father's cloth business, then as a librarian in Glasgow and Edinburgh, prior to being sent to the Okanagan Valley in the spring of 1899 for treatment of a lung ailment. In May of 1900 he trekked with two companions the length of the Okanagan Valley and around the Kootenays. Returning to Scotland before Christmas, he began publishing travel accounts in Glasgow, London and in American newspapers and magazines. His first novel, The Lost Cabin Mine (1908), was an adventure tale of the Canadian west. He quit journalism to complete his second novel, The Island Providence (1910). He married Mary Pauline Thorne-Quelch in 1911. He returned to Western Canada on roving commissions as a freelance writer in 1912 and 1913.
Rejected for military service, Niven wrote for the British Ministry of Information during World War I. After three more novels, Hands Up (1913), Cinderella of Skookum Creek (1916) and Penny Scot's Treasure (1919), he was threatened with a serious heart ailment and moved permanently to B.C., with his wife, to Willow Point, six miles outside of Nelson, in 1920. By this time he was easily one of the most influential literary figures of British Columbia. Niven's reader's report to a publisher about Hubert Evan's 1927 novel, The New Front Line, prompted its appearance, after he had declared, "this is a novel that will not go a-begging."
Niven wrote eighteen more books in B.C. where he felt much at home with the terrain and the people. "What it is to me (and, I believe, to many) the essential British Columbia in many ways is very much like Scotland," he once wrote. Two historical novels, The Flying Years (1935) and Mine Inheritance (1940), survey the changes that took place between 1811 and World War I on the prairies.
One of his more unusual books was Brothers in Arms (1942), "Being the account written by James Niven, tobacco merchant of Glasgow, in the eighteenth century, of two years he spent in Virginia in his youth: of family affairs, of many famous persons he met and of what happened - the preliminary setbacks of a Victorian campaign- before the surrender to the British; recently discovered and now edited and seen through the press by Frederick Niven."
In his final novel, The Transplanted! (1944), Niven dramatizes the economic developments of B.C.'s interior ranching, lumbering and mining industries and their effects on a broad range of characters. Among the transplanted are two very different men from Glasgow, Robert Wallace and Jock Galbraith, who maintain a strong bond despite difficulties. Robert Wallace is a shrewd visionary who becomes a builder of Canada, opening up the town of Elkhorn, but others, such as Marion Masters, fall victim to economic expansionism. Galbraith is Wallace's foreman on his cattle ranch.
Niven's final work entitled Go North (Seattle, Washington, 1947) appeared posthumously.
Critic Charles Lillard once described Niven's fictionalized memoir, Wild Honey (Binghampton: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1927; published in Britain as Queer Fellows), as one of the three best early novels of B.C. in the company of Hubert Evans' Mist on the River and Howard O'Hagan's Tay John. This autobiographical work depicts the vagabond lifestyle of hobos in the southern interior of British Columbia. [See article below]
The Lost Cabin Mine (1908) - set in B.C.
The Island Providence (1910)
A Wilderness of Monkeys (1911)
Above your Heads (1911) short stories
Hands Up! (1913)
Cinderella of Skookum Creek (1916) - set in B.C.
Sage-brush Stories (1917) short stories
Penny Scot's Treasure (1919)
The Lady of the Crossing (1919)
A Tale that is Told (1920)
The wolfer (1923) - set in B.C.
Treasure trail (1923) - set in B.C.
Justice of the Peace (1923)
Wild Honey (1927) - set in B.C.
Queer Fellows (1927)
The Paisley Shawl (1932) - Romance set near Edinburgh
The Rich Wife (1934)
The Flying Years (1935) - homesteading story of the prairies and a Scotsman fleeing the Highland Clearances
Old Soldier (1936)
The Staff at Simson's (1937)
A lady in the Wilderness, a Tale of the Yukon, not of Its Gold, But of Ben-my-chree, the Long Famous Garden of Mrs. Partridge. (1938)
Mine Inheritance (1940) - historical romance set in Red River.
The Transplanted! (1944) - set in B.C.
A lady in the Wilderness
Canada West (1930)
Colour in the Canadian Rockies (1937, 1947, 1954), with illustrations by Walter J. Phillips
Coloured spectacles (1938)
Go North, Where the World is Young (Seattle, Washington, 1947)
The S.S. Glory (1915)
Maple-leaf songs (1917) poems
A lover of the Land and Other Poems (Boni & Liveright 1925)
Ellen Adair (1925)
The Story of Alexander Selkirk (1929)
Alaska Atlin and the Yukon (circa 1937)
The Story of their Days (1939)
Under Which King (1943)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2010] "Classic" "Fiction" "1900-1950" "Ranching"
HOBO LITERATURE THAT WONDERFULLY elusive sub-genre of travel writing is not a school one immediately associates with B.C. writers. We don't have a Jack London or a Jack Kerouac. Robert Service, however, knew more about life on the bum than either Jack did and his writings about it aren't to be sniffed at. And in later years AI Purdy and Pat Lane have also given us their roadside views of life.
But Canada's best hobo writer was Frederick Niven, born in 1878. For many years Niven lived at Willow Point, Kootenay Lake near Nelson. While justly praised for many of his novels, his account of riding the rods in British Columbia's Dry Belt has been mostly ignored by critics and readers since it was published as Wild Honey in 1927.
There may be more than one reason behind this. Though long a Canadian resident, Niven made critics uneasy about his literary position with his varied output. He wrote poetry, a good deal of non-fiction, and novels, some of the best of which were set in Scotland. To top this off, in the 1920's when Canadian literature was not leaving much of a trace anywhere, Niven, according to Christopher Morley, was "one of the most genuinely gifted novelists of our time."
Wild Honey was travel writing. "I came to Penny's Pit... because I was young and wanted to see the West, and did not want to see it only from a car window. I was not, in the accepted sense, an immigrant... I was just a wanderer, curiously looking at the world and encountering men I could never have met in my decorous home."
In this brief passage we find two reasons for the silence surrounding the book. It is autobiography (in England, where it has the title Queer Fellows, it was advertised as such), but for unknown reasons it was sold in the U.S. and Canada as fiction. It does not read like a novel so readers likely turned to more exciting fare. Secondly, the book hints at much that the Canadian reader of the 1920's preferred to ignore -bums, alcohol, Indian women and white men, the unemployable (quite different than bums), plus freedom of the road and of the mind.
The plot involves little more than the miles of railroad track between North Bend and Kamloops, and the roads south to Greenwood and Midway. Niven's characters are himself and two professional hobos he meets at Penny's Pit, a gravel pit near Savona. The men spend a few days together travelling, first to cash their cheques at North Bend, then to the border towns. Their story takes place about the same time that London was riding the rods east, and Service was wandering north and south along the West Coast.
The writing and Niven's intelligence cement the diverse elements of Wild Honey. Here he is at Penny's Pit: "I never lost sight of its beauty. That was the attraction. The dust and heat of the day, the cal louses on the hands, or the splinters in them, were merely by the way. ..the air and the scene more than atoned. Above the rasp of the shovels with which we worked astern of the big, rhythmically-coughing steamshovel, I would hear the murmur of the Thompson River lapsing past; and that murmur, somehow, was worth much weary labour to hear."
Of his friends, the 'queer fellows', Niven wrote: "There was Slim, an unknown quantity, seldom speaking; generally, when we were not at work, conning the advertisement pages in the few magazines" in the bunk car. His partner was Hank, "tough, very tough, and when occasion demanded it he had the most appalling flow of profanity; and violent fits of temper, he had, blazing and gone."
Neither man was of a type known to young Niven from Scotland. Both proved to be good companions, except when Hank, "deranged by drink", did his level best to kill Niven. Parallel to the characters is the multi-layered world of the Dry Belt. The businessmen, staid and true, who try to do the hobos out of their nickels and pennies, the Indians, miners, townspeople all are representatives of this Janus-faced world of southern British Columbia.
A curious prelude to this world and Niven's book is the author's earlier Maple-Leaf Songs (1917). Various episodes described in detail in Wild Honey are foreshadowed in these poems; verses, it must be pointed out, that will appeal to anyone who's loafed about British Columbia, knowing there's absolutely nowhere that needs to be reached today or tomorrow.
Finally, no matter how well it's put off, a day comes when time begins dogging one's tracks. "They turned and hiked away," Niven wrote of his friends, "It was a very bright day, hot and cloudless. They walked in a quivering heat-haze, and the worn portions of Hank's old blue serge suit reflected rays like a mirror."--by Charles Lillard
[Autumn / BCBW 1988]