Morton & Proctor, Heart of the Raincoast

Heart of the Raincoast: A Life Story, by Alexandra Morton and Billy Proctor (mostly Morton, really, with some passages from Billy Proctor and some verse from his mother Jae), is on the one hand, one of those small-press local-interest books you see looking a bit mournful on racks in not-quite-bookstores. And it's published by TouchWood, which I've rumbled about previously for not offering the most careful copy-editing or the most helpful editing in relation to plot and related points. So, it looks a risky proposition from the outset, and after having read the book now, I don't see it as a book that my literature students need to read.

But on the other hand, Heart of the Raincoast is a book that belongs on the shelves of anyone who cares about change on the BC coast, both cultural change and environmental change. There's a naivety to the structure and prose of the book, which to me makes it feel as if Morton was learning on the job about how to communicate more effectively in her own voice in print, and this will no doubt be a turnoff for more literary readers who happen to flip through it on one of the BC Ferries or in a tourist shop, but it works, and here's why.

This memoir is the life story of Billy Proctor, of the (mostly) non-Aboriginal inhabitants of the Broughton Archipelago since the early 20th century, of coastal BC communities more generally, and of "the environment" on the BC coast. The stories blend together, because nothing sensible comes from trying to tease apart these stories. The first nine chapters, with their apparently unnecessary details about annual income in the 1950s and boat horsepower in the 1940s and so on, are essential information that allow you to make sense -- richly and lastingly -- in the final chapter, in which Proctor makes a clear, passionate call for a different approach to fisheries conservation on the BC coast. It comes to be about fish, in the end, rather than fisheries, even for a boot-wearing lifelong fisherman like Billy Proctor, but it can only be all about fish if you understand how he gets to this position. You need to understand who he is and how he got that way, and Morton's naivety as a writer (possibly only her apparent naivety?) allows Proctor's character to develop far more effectively than it might in a more polished book.

Mind you, we're well past the five-year window that this book gave, in the late 90s, for turning around fish populations on the BC coast, and the collapse continues far longer than Morton and Proctor expected. She continues to advocate on behalf of fish, and it's a great thing that there remain enough fish around on whose behalf to take an advocacy stance, but times are extremely tough for salmon on the coast. The book hasn't worked, in other words, but it's worth reading anyway. And then go read something by Terry Glavin (like this, or this, or maybe this). Because something just has to happen. We've been beating the crap out of this province for a hell of a long time, and it just has to stop.


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