LITERARY LANDMARK: Valley Sentinel community newspaper, 1012 Commercial Street, Valemount

Maureen Brownlee grew up in the farming community of Dunster in the Robson Valley and went to school in nearby McBride. She lived in Arrow Lakes and Prince George before moving to Valemount, also in the Robson Valley, where she founded and operated The Valley Sentinel from 1985 to 1994. Her little-known but excellent first novel, Loggers' Daughters, was featured on the cover of B.C. BookWorld in 2014. For those old enough to remember a Canadian writer named Margaret Laurence, it can be likened to an old fashioned Margaret Laurence novel.

Brownlee's second novel, Cambium Blue (Harbour $22.95) is set in another small B.C. logging town, this time in 1995 just as the mountain pine beetle begins decimating North American forests. Major characters include a young single mother, a widowed newspaper publisher and an old junk collecter who also happened to fight in the Spanish Civil War. All are dealing with their own private crises. The novel "vibrates with violence and sings with beauty" says fellow novelist, Angie Abdou.


Imagine being born somewhere north of Quesnel, deep in the inland rainforest of the Rocky Mountain trench, back in the early '40s, back when BC Rail was still called the PGE and everyone called it Please Go Easy.

Everything you know about your parents comes from snippets of conversation you weren't meant to hear. Your grandparents died in a collision with a train, and your mother inherited the farm that is your childhood home; your father was specifically excluded, a continuous source of acrimony between your parents.

Then your father, injured in a bush accident, loses his source of income (and pride) and becomes a very heavy drinker. You'll never know for certain, but maybe it is the bar bills at the local hotel that one day persuade your parents to give you up to the local hotel owners, a German couple, or maybe they are Austrian, and so you never get past the tenth grade.

Essentially you are traded, like chattel, forced to work as a permanent, live-in employee, working in the kitchen and cleaning the hotel rooms. You don't get paid. You wonder why your protective older brother Garth doesn't come to your rescue but, of course, by this time he has finished his grade twelve and is off working in the bush. You hate it. You run away twice.

The only thing unusual about you is your name, Adare.

"She wanted to go to the city," writes Maureen Brownlee, in her first novel, Loggers' Daughters. "Get a job in a bank. Or an office. Type. Smoke cigarettes in an ebony holder. Cigarettes lit by a gentleman in a black fedora."

Years go by. You marry a young construction worker, a decent guy who has been to university, who works in the lumber industry and you have two kids. You get to do all the traditional maternal stuff that goes along with being a mill wife in a mill town in the early '50s in one of those now abandoned logging towns out along CNR's east line. You are deeply enmeshed in a life of shared labour, brawls, dances that go on all night and then everyone decides to whip up pancakes. Nobody has much but there is enough to go around.

This all comes to a grinding halt when the mill that everyone relies on burns down one frosty night. Your country loving husband decides to gamble on an offer to take over your mother's farm, long neglected and falling to ruin. Over your objections you move, you, your kids, your mill house rolled on logs onto a lumber truck. Into a life of unremitting labour: cattle, haying, kids, and a nasty, bitter mother living just across the gully.

But you thrive here, save the family farm, improve it. You can remember when you got indoor plumbing. While your husband, Dave, was off taking seasonal work for much of the year, you eke out a living on 160 acres of rock and pine and a triangle of sweet loam that touches upon the Fraser.

Then your mean-spirited mother goes squirrelly with dementia, and you get stuck with that too. Your brother Garth is a busy logging contractor, living well beyond his means. Your sister Nancy, who married early, and often, now lives safely distant in Kamloops.

When your cancer-ridden mother dies in 1983 - after three months in hospital - during which you take the brunt of enduring the dreary, pain-ridden, guilt-ridden vigil typical for so many families, nobody deeply acknowledges your sacrifice because, after all, by now, it is expected of you.

Then the worst thing happens. Even your wise and usually considerate brother Garth thinks the family farm should be sold four ways. There is no will. Your siblings need and want a share. Everyone has delayed talking about this while your mother was alive.

Then the best thing happens. Your smarty-pants daughter, Brianne, who left town when she graduated from high school in 1972, is held overnight in jail in Vancouver for participating in some demonstration against American missiles. So you visit her for a few days. You accompany her to an eye-opening conference at UBC called Women and Words, June 30 - July 3.

At this monumental gathering of a thousand women, you learn about the fire-bombings of pornographic video stories by a secret group called the Wimmins' Brigade. You also visit a women's shelter where Brianne volunteers, a refuge for countless women who invariably go back to violent and abusive households for the sake of their children.

More importantly, you learn about a Supreme Court decision made against a Canadian farm-wife named Irene Murdoch in 1973 who tried to legally claim her fair share of the family ranch following a divorce. Listening to passionate women debating the inequity of the Murdoch case, decrying the court's paternalist legal decision as "bourgeois bullshit," it strengthens your resolve to stand up for what is owed to you.

That's just a glimmering of the deep dignity of perseverance that permeates the text of Loggers' Daughters. Anyone who sticks with the narration that bounces back and forth between past and present will probably agree Maureen Brownlee's long-in-gestation, fully-fledged first novel deserves to be heralded as a triumph.

Quite likely this manuscript has endured previous incarnations. No matter. It is now a mature work. If you are not thirsty for mere cleverness, if you can appreciate instead how each anecdote has been forged from experience, you will never forget the protagonist, Adare Wilkins, in much the same way you will always recall the likes of Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel or Rachel Cameron in A Jest of God.

The title Logger's Daughters and a cover image of a choker cable around a tree are far from beguiling, and likely few readers beyond rural B.C. are going to be comfortable with a novel that doesn't explain what a skidder is, but Brownlee has wrangled and honed a family saga until it has finally emerged as a sublime testament to the strength of the women who maintain families within the timber, ranch and construction industries of the province.

Brian Fawcett, who left his hometown of Prince George at age twenty-two, has recently written his own novel about central B.C. with a similarly prosaic title, The Last of the Lumbermen (Cormorant), examining much of the same territory from a male perspective. Peter Trower's trilogy of logging novels has also been largely overlooked.

The earliest, classic B.C. logging novel that literary folks tend to acknowledge is M.A. Grainger's Woodsmen of the West (1908). Roderick Haig-Brown wrote logging novels, Timber (1942) and On the Highest Hill (1949). Arguably the first B.C. graphic novel ever is Bus Griffith's unparalleled Now You're Logging (1978; 2013).


Loggers' Daughters (Oolichan, 2014) $19.95 978-0-88982-294-8

Cambium Blue (Harbour, 2022) $22.95 978-1-55017-930-9

[Laura Keil photo]

[BCBW 2022]

Cambium Blue by Maureen Brownlee
(Harbour Publishing $22.95)

by Beverly Cramp

tevie Jeffers is the soon-to-be single mother of two girls, the oldest born when Stevie was just sixteen. She has kicked out her second not-quite-husband, Kurt Talbot, a logger who works in remote camps. He wants to uproot the family from their small-town home in Beauty Creek and move them closer to his current camp farther north. Stevie wants to stay put and provide her children with some stability.
Kurt’s not the biological father of Stevie’s kids anyway. That guy died in a driving accident down an old logging road, and the kids were too young to remember him.

Thus begins Maureen Brownlee’s second novel, Cambium Blue, eight years after her debut, Loggers’ Daughters (Oolichan, 2014), marked her as a chronicler of the vast part of British Columbia known simply as “The Interior.” This large geographical area is home to many boom-and-bust resource towns, once the bedrock of BC’s economy. It’s also where substance abuse, family abuse and just about every other kind of abuse is statistically higher than in the province’s southern urban areas. These communities tend to be patriarchal —where women are disadvantaged, men work in dangerous blue-collar jobs, violence is never far away and the livin’ is tough despite the natural beauty.

The story is set in 1995 just as the bark beetle epidemic is getting started, threatening millions of acres of pine forest that supply BC sawmills and most of the good-paying jobs. The book title refers to the inner bark of pine trees, which is what the pine beetles eat. If an infected tree is harvested before it dies, the wood is stained blue by a fungus that the beetles carry. Although structurally sound, the blue-stained lumber makes it less valuable.

Partly due to the pine beetle problem and partly to politics, the local sawmill in Beauty Creek is closed, putting many townspeople out of work. Now, a Vancouver developer is promising to build a major resort that will attract tourists and bring new jobs. Meanwhile, the developer is quietly consulting with the town’s mayor about a big residential development in Beauty Creek that will fill his pockets if it’s built. It will also raise tax rates for the existing residents and cost the town dearly for new municipal services. The stain of cambium blue is a good metaphor for these developments: will the resort make the town stronger or of less value to those who live there? Is the developer a parasite?

Stevie knows none of this as she becomes the family breadwinner and starts waitressing at the local café. For self-improvement, she enrolls in an evening computer keyboarding class. The instructor has the class type résumés. Stevie is reluctant, having little life experience. In the education section, she types: “Grade 10, Deighton Secondary, 1987.” The instructor probes: “No first aid? Or maybe a Superhost course?” Stevie whispers, “No.” The experience section is worse: babysitting when Stevie was thirteen and a few odd jobs helping the cook at different camps where her first husband worked.

Still, Stevie uses this résumé to apply for, and get, an entry-level job at the local town newspaper run by Maggie Evans, a second major character in Brownlee’s novel. Not able to sell the business after her husband, Hank, died of lung cancer, Maggie is barely able to pay the bills. “Two mortgages on the house, an operating line at its max, and too many credit cards had been Hank Evans’s idea of financial equilibrium,” writes Brownlee.

Unlike most in Beauty Creek, Maggie had spent the last two years of high school in Vancouver, where she intended to stay. After graduation, she got a job in the accounting department of the Vancouver Sun and met Hank, who was a junior reporter. They fell in love, got married. In 1965, when she brings him to Beauty Creek to meet her parents, Hank falls in love with the town when he sees one of its magnificent peaks. “‘Look!’ he exclaimed. ‘Look at that!’ A ‘Creekster’ from birth, Maggie had been taking Wolverine Mountain for granted for a long time. Yes, she agreed, it was a postcard view. Yes, the air was marvellous. Yes, the creek did make a lovely sound.”

Hank learns the town paper, Beauty Creek Chronicle, is up for sale and buys it without consulting Maggie—and bang, she’s right back where she grew up.
A third major character in Cambium Blue is Nash Malone, an eccentric old widower and junk collector who lived through the Great Depression either jobless and half-starving or working in relief camps near Vancouver for 20 cents a day. Surprisingly, he also fought in the Spanish Civil War — although unbeknownst to Beauty Creek folks, not for political reasons, rather because he was at a dead end with no job prospects. But the townspeople suspect him of being a “Commie,” a term most don’t fully understand, only believing that Nash is some kind of nut to be avoided. In fact, he is a writer and poet (mostly unpublished except for poems Maggie prints in the Chronicle), and he suffers from PTSD after witnessing the bloody mayhem of war in Spain, which Brownlee covers in flashbacks and Nash’s poetry.

It’s Nash who saves young Stevie from an assault in her front yard when she’s followed home one night from a Legion social event. The abuser is not taking no for an answer. Suddenly a voice comes out of the dark: “Sounds like the lady wants you to go,” says Nash, holding a gun. The abuser tries to get Nash to leave, but he stands firm. It’s the abuser who backs down, although not before shouting an obscenity at Stevie.

Maureen Brownlee knows of what she writes, having grown up in the Robson Valley and attended a school in McBride. She lived in Arrow Lakes and Prince George before moving to Valemount, where she founded and operated The Valley Sentinel from 1985 to 1994. Although some of Beauty Creek’s characters may seem like representations of real people, “I assure you they are not,” Brownlee firmly states in her Acknowledgements. She has, she says “concocted a tale.”

Yet through the tribulations and resilience of Stevie, Maggie and Nash, against a large supporting cast of other small-towners, Brownlee has effectively portrayed the very real dynamics of an interior BC town on the verge of big change. 9781550179309

Beverly Cramp, the publisher of BC BookWorld grew up in Valemount enjoying views of Canoe Mountain and playing on the shores of the glacier-fed Swift Creek. Many of her neighbours worked at the now-defunct Canyon Creek Sawmill.

[BCBW 2022]