TOM YORK, B.C. NOVELIST AND United Church minister, was killed in a traffic mishap in December of 1987. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1940 and raised in Little Rock., Arkansas, Thomas Lee York came to Canada in 1962. He retreated to the New Brunswick woods and immersed himself in the Bible, learning to read it in both Greek and Hebrew. He was indicted for draft evasion in 1964. When he later surrendered in 1973 and was sentenced to three years for failure to notify the draft board of his change of address, he objected only to the charge. "I'm not innocent," he said, "I may be innocent of what I'm going to jail for, but as a person I am not innocent." He appealed the conviction and was acquitted. He became an ordained minister in 1967 and subsequently served parishes in the Queen Charlotte Islands, Bella Bella, Yellowknife, Chapel-in-thePark in Toronto, Pemberton/Whister and St. Paul's College in Waterloo.
Here he is remembered by fellow author and outdoorsman Richard Wright of Williams Lake:
"I knew Tom best during his ministry in Pemberton and Whistler, each the antithesis of the other, a rural farm community and a yuppie ski resort. There I saw what he did for people, his door and his heart always open. He gave much. I remember one old man, ignored by his family for years because he would disappear into books. One evening in a ski cabin he met Tom York and finally found someone who knew what the hell a soul was, or wasn't. His daughter said, 'Now I begin to understand him'. Tom did that for people.
"He loved his ministry, even though he would often say it was 'just a job' and preaching 'is what I do best'. In his last letter to me Tom wrote: "The job I love it. Mainly the chaplaincy, though it's true I do teach an occasional course, a Malcolm Lowry seminar this term, for example. But I wouldn't give up writing or the church for university teaching (not that anyone's asked me to!)." Tom's last autobiographical work, Pimping for Jesus, "remains in limbo -these are conservative times," he wrote. He was a man not easily understood, not easily accepted. Rev. John Cash ore wrote in The Vancouver Sun, "I really do believe that Tom was one of the most controversial ministers we have ever had in the church," referring to an attempted 'unfrocking' of Tom by a few complaining parishioners. Tom won. "Because you were right?" I asked. "Because I fielded more troops." Tom York, the militaristic pacifist, who preached peace and love, and studied war with passion.
"Reviewers have said his writing was 'crammed too full of themes (from the mystical to the satirical) and schemes, attitudes and images.' Too full. But that, you see, was his life. The Thomas York I knew lived with an unexplained, perhaps unrecognized pain. I like to think he had found the source of that discomfort of late and dealt with it, that he had completed one of his many circles.
"Okay. There is a voice saying, "Richard, if you don't mention women it's not my obit." So: I never saw Tom without a woman, often many, swarming like bees around honey. He did that. And though he was a self-proclaimed misogynist, continually seeking 'a state of desirelessness' (which he never attained), that too was only a confirmation of what some folks wanted to hear. He gave more than he received.
"His novels were set where he lived and included his passion for the arctic and wilderness canoeing. We, The Wilderness (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1973) is the story of an Indian village on the B.C. coast. Snowman (Doubleday, 1976) is set near and beyond Yellowknife, a story loosely based on the tale of John Hornby. The Musk Ox Passion (Doubleday, 1978) is a tragic-comedy based in part on an unsuccessful 1972 real-life attempt to collect musk ox qiviut (wool) on a $5000 contract. Only 1.5 kilograms were found.
"His autobiographical And Sleep in the Woods (Doubleday, 1978) concerned his New Brunswick spiritual quest. His finest work to date is Trapper (Doubleday, 1981), without a doubt the best telling of Albert Johnson's story, the 'Mad Trapper of Rat River'. Johnson became York's alter ego and York knew the man and the country as no other writer had. His last novel is Desireless, set in New Orleans, to be published by Penguin.
""I write only from obsessive material," Tom York once said, "to order it. I would rather not write, but find it a compulsion attendant upon the appetite for living and experiencing fully. I look forward to being less driven: dead." I sat at the kitchen table and wept when I heard the news. "No, there is a mistake. The immortal Tom York could not die by ACCIDENT." But the tears soon changed to a smile for I could see him and Albert Johnson, soul mates, sitting on a star in Orion's belt and chuckling. This was another adventure, another whitewater run. Tom smiled at me and said, "Richard, don't weep. I know where I am -where are you?" We'll miss you, Tom." -- Richard Wright
[BCBW 1988] “First Nations” “Religion” “Fiction”