The Language of Family: Stories of Bonds and Belonging edited by Michelle van der Merwe (Royal BC Museum $27.95)

Review by Beverly Cramp

Everyone’s idea of family is different: There’s the classic nuclear family of mother, father and kids; there are extended branches of kinship within indigenous communtieis; and some activists eschew biological families for social networks. The folks at the Royal B.C. Museum have therefore included a wide spectrum for The Language of Family: Stories of Bonds and Belonging, edited by Michelle van der Merwe, publisher at the Royal BC Museum.

Twenty contributors from B.C. share their memories and perspectives on what family means in essays, personal narratives and poems.

“To make sense of so many of the objects in our collections, you have to start with the stories of families,” writes Jack Lohman, head of the Royal BC Museum, in the book’s introduction.

Lohman describes a wedding dress worn by a great-aunt that might be exhibited not just because of the historical qualities the item represents; rather, the stories about the wearer are equally, if not more important.

“To preserve the dress and record its tales and anecdotes is to give us a very different and very rich history, not so much of hemlines, but of the things the legs beneath the hemlines got up to.”

Lohman adds that when donors to the museum describe what is important about the object they are giving, the record shows, “Not that the object was so valuable in price that it became an heirloom, but that it was valued because humans cherished it and wanted to preserve the memories attached to it.”

Coast Salish artist Luke Marston describes his ancestors, especially his great-great-grandfather Portuguese Joe Silvey, a whaler, a Gastown saloon keeper and the first person in B.C. to get a seine fishing license.

Portuguese Joe had travelled from the Azores of Portugal to Vancouver and married twice to First Nations women. For a time, Portuguese Joe and his family lived in the traditional village of P’apeyek (now known as Brocton Point in Stanley Park). In 2015, Marston erected a monument to Portuguese Joe at Brocton Point.

Historian and writer Larry Wong recounts how, in the 1960s, Mary Chan saved Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. It was being threatened by the new-fangled notion of “urban renewal,” which meant bulldozers to Chan and her neighbours. They formed a group (that included lawyer Mike Harcourt, later mayor of Vancouver and premier of B.C.) to fight the destruction of their neighbourhood. Surprisingly, the group won, becoming the first city in Canada to drop urban renewal.
Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration founder, Mo Dhaliwal examines the depth of “family friends,” concluding, “I now consider my family to be those who are there for me in time and spirit, those who are common to me in bond if not in blood, who are kindred in their hopes and dreams if not in lineage.”

Lawyer Barbara Findlay, describing herself as, “a fat white 67-year-old cisgender lesbian with disabilities, raised Christian and working class, the eldest of five, in Regina,” found family in the gay community. “We dykes used to offer each other the common wisdom: watch out for weddings and funerals. Places where family formations matter.” This closeness was in contrast to one of Findlay’s sisters who, when asked about the appointed guardian of her only daughter, replied she had chosen a neighbour—whom she saw only occasionally—rather than Barbara and her lesbian partner. “When I questioned her choice she said she would never let her daughter be raised by us.”

Other stories include author Joy Kogawa’s account of her kinship to a cherry tree; Patrick Lane’s elegiac poem to fathers and sons; and rancher and Lieutenant Governor of B.C. Judith Guichon’s description of families changing over time but how the love of the land unites them all.


Beverly Cramp is associate editor of BC BookWorld