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1991 Writing in the Rain by Howard White

Lesson 44
Regional histories with national appeal

For a year and a half in the mid-1970s, I’d leave work every day, walk to a warehouse near Granville Island, enter a closet, close the door, and talk to myself for a couple of hours. There in the semi-darkness, I read and recorded stories about steamships and British Columbian history for the blind.[1] The hypnotic experience changed my life,[2] stamped me forever with stories of the West Coast, and haunted my thoughts last year as I read about a truckload of fish guts.
          When Writing in the Rain by Howard White floated to the top of my Leacock Medal reading list, I assumed its stories of salmon, steamboats, and rainforests would remind me of how much I miss British Columbia.
          When it comes to passion for the West Coast, it’s hard to match Howard White. He has pretty much dedicated his life to a celebration of the province and its people. After school and a few years of bouncing around on bulldozers and backhoes, White[3] settled on the coast near Pender Harbour, where he not only started a family but also gave birth to Harbour Publishing, the enterprise that, in turn, brought hundreds of BC authors and thousands of BC stories into the world. The Order of Canada, the Order of B.C., and many industry awards have recognized White, the publisher, as the champion of B.C. regional histories.

           Writing in the Rain exemplifies the subject matter, but it differs because publisher White wrote this book himself. It’s an anthology of essays that do exactly what I assumed they would. They serve up starfish, hermit crabs, and otters and use terms like “throw it out in the chuck,” “gyppo loggers,” “haywire,” and the “big cumpney’s running the show,” which I don’t hear elsewhere and always associate with British Columbia.
          But instead of making me wistful, the stories usually prompted thoughts of places and people that I encountered after moving away. Now being more elsewhere than of BC, I see White’s coastal characters as just a particular flavour of personalities found in many parts of Canada.
          White’s comical story of trucking fish guts around the coast, which recalled my BC
experience, could be easily recreated with the entrails of other animals in other locales; his essay on astronomy and tides, while important to the BC coast, touches a global curiosity; and his encounters with aboriginal youth in the BC interior could be restaged easily in Northern Ontario or Quebec. The loggers and fishermen who wrote poetry, sang songs, and told stories reminded me of “versifying” Ottawa Valley farmers, and White’s story of the Easthope marine engine sounds a lot like Farley Mowat’s adventures off the East Coast.
          Yet Howard White would have a hard time accepting the suggestion that British Columbia is anything but unique. He finds little parallel, for example, in Newfoundland: “one of the bleaker places human beings have chosen to stand” with towns “like lichen clinging to the crevices of a huge windswept boulder.” In the rocks, trees, and ocean of the BC coast, on the other hand, he sees beauty that gives him a “shivery old feeling” of “mystery and wonder.” White has probably eaten more than his share of lotus fruit.
          Of course, many writers aspire to tell stories about a specific locale that speak to universals, and this commitment-to-BC feature of Writing in the Rain probably points to White’s strengths rather than a parochialism or fault. I don’t think you can find a technique or trick to achieve this effect. It probably flows, when it flows, naturally from a writer’s fascination with regional history and caring about the people. This leads into a humanity that can touch everyone everywhere and, in this case, a national audience.
          Another challenge I had in studying Writing in the Rain was the question of how it rated a humour award. White was not particularly funny in this book.
          The chapters that brought me closest to laughing were those that relied, not on White’s words, but oral histories told by old timers. I’d never think of terms like “booze kitten” or “Holy Mexican Jesus” unless I’d first read them here. These stories reminded me to quote other authors when I can--and that none of us is as funny as all of us.
          But, as with several other books, the humour of this one may rest in something unspoken. It’s the presumption that British Columbia does not have a culture and history worth documenting: a hypothesis that does not do well in the face of this book and that constitutes a pervasive incongruity. If such a view ever held sway among Eastern elites, it’s been disrupted over the decades in large part by the work of Howard White and Harbour Publishing, which, in turn, makes the book even less humorous today and its Leacock award more ironic.
          Those thoughts give me a headache, yet they’re all I have. Perhaps I should go back into the closet, talk to myself, and think of the B.C. coast some more.
Writing Exercise
Record interviews with three people over the age of eighty-five about life in the late 1940s. Transcribe them and use the words as dialogue in a story about an unemployed writer set in 2014.

[1] I recorded Whistle Up the Inlet: The Union Steamship Story by Gerald Rushton (1974) for Vancouver Talking Books for the Blind over 1975 and 1976.
[2] The experience recording books led me into a job in Vancouver radio.
[3] He was born in Abbotsford in 1945.