Melody Hessing, Up Chute Creek
"How does anyone 'belong' to this place anymore? Is home just anywhere you hang your hat? Any place with a pay cheque? How are we attached to a place when we no longer derive our sustenance from it? How do we know what it is? Why should we care?" (p.119)In retrospect, I should have waited to start reading Melody Hessing's Up Chute Creek: An Okanagan Idyll.
It came well recommended, with cover blurbs from Dick Cannings, Harold Rhenisch, and Don Gayton, plus a title-page puff from David Suzuki, and Theresa Kishkan tells me that she likes it a great deal. And my mother, too, when I loaned it to her, read it in two sittings and thought Up Chute Creek was one of the best books she's read in years. The book deserves the praise, but my reading circumstances meant that it's been difficult for me to verbalize quite why that is. So, this review is a bit awkward, representing some competing responses that I've had to Hessing's work.
Something important to get over: I've long had difficulty reading stories out of the 60s with much sympathy. "Damn boomers," approximately. It's related, I assume, to what Coupland in Generation X called "boomer envy," but less focused on materiality; one of Jeff Gomez' characters in Our Noise says he'd just die if one more boomer told him that Clapton's "Layla" is the best that music could be, and it's something like that. One tires of hearing references from the 60s and 70s used as ways to slag the more recent, and even the contemporary.
In other words, my fatigued reading state made it difficult initially for me to overcome the sense that I was reading a story about how brave you all were in the 70s when you went back to the land, and kids these days etc. But really, it's not that book. Hessing does write about her struggles, inside the family unit, at work, and on the land, but it's not written comparatively, and you know what? These struggles are worth reading about, and Hessing's writing is up to the task.
Mind you, my own parents lived a parallel life to Hessing. She and her husband moved to the Okanagan rather than the Shuswap, her children are younger than my sister and me, and their house is built on a less accessible building lot, but otherwise the timing and story is about right. This means that I've got a different view on the story than many of her readers will. It rings true to me, which is a good thing, but it also meant that I had to work at considering the book as something other than a family story: it tells her story, like a memoir should, but I had trouble making myself think of it literarily.
And now that I've bared myself, so to speak, let's go to the actual review, shall we?
In Up Chute Creek, Melody Hessing has expressed with great sensitivity the early-70s drive to live outside the city, but much more importantly she's articulated the consequences for a woman and a family of doing all she could to live out that drive. Gender had material meaning for her role in the family's move out of the city and into the land, and one of the pleasures of the book for me is the mostly unexamined way that the male-dominated community she entered in the 1970s becomes a community of women. She's interested, too, in the small and large effects of human dwelling in a place (nests for birds, the movement of coyotes across large landscapes), and there's an activist pull in her work, so there are a lot of things to grab onto with this book.
Hessing is especially insightful about the changes across time of her property and her community, but she does a nice job of not overdoing it -- there's a fairly organic quality to the insights, some of them seeming almost accidental, which makes the book feel nicely fresh:
Since we moved to the Okanagan Valley thirty-five years ago, this place has been "home," even in my absence. Children would grow up and leave, jobs could end, friends would come and go, but the land wasn't going anywhere. To sell this property would be a renunciation of faith, like giving up a sacred trust. I inhabit, with my neighbours, a unique and vulnerable geography. The tragedy of this commons, is not that we do not get along with one another, but that we are flourishing like weeds, the ultimate invasive species. (p.204)Or as she says earlier, "My musings do not deflect the forces of development changing this valley" (p.158). This thoughtful book dwells carefully and passionately in Hessing's property beside Chute Creek, and it tells stories both politically conventional and personally illuminating about how that property fits into the larger Okanagan community and into how Hessing herself understands the world.
I do wish the book had been a little more carefully copy-edited, but that's not the end of the world. In the end Hessing acquits herself well with Up Chute Creek, even if she doesn't join my little BC nonfiction pantheon. Of course, three members of that pantheon thought highly enough of the book to praise it, two of them on the cover of the book itself, so who am I to doubt them?