Joe Garner, Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest

I'll never know how truthful Joe Garner was in his classic autobiography Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest, but even if it's all true, I'll always hear my grandfather saying of him, "That ol' bullshitter!"

In any case, this is essential reading for anyone wondering how BC got to be the way it is. First published in 1980 by Oolichan Press, and then self-published by Garner as Cinnabar Press, Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest: A True Story of Courage and Survival During British Columbia's Early Years may have been the biggest-selling book in BC history. By the fall of 1983, Garner was claiming that it had sold 20,000 copies (six printings with Oolichan, then three more with Cinnabar). As BC Bookworld puts it, Joe Garner was a "notorious self-promoter," so it's hard to say; still, he made regular trips around the province with a van stuffed with autographed copies so that he could personally harangue booksellers and other retailers, so it's possible.

And when I say "notorious self-promoter," I've seen a great many copies of Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest, but only one single copy without an autograph.

(Let me just say, before I go any further, that the picture here comes from the Powell River Books Blog; Margy has posted a more detailed, more book-focused comment than I've written, and I'd encourage you to visit her.)

Given the number of copies in circulation, and its first-person perspective on BC history, the cultural weight of Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest should seem assured. In the 2020s, though, this book's a tougher read than at any point in its 40 years to date, and I don't know that it'll continue to be read, if indeed anyone's reading it still now.

In summary: Joe Garner was born in 1909 on Saltspring Island, the third child of American parents Oland and Lona Garner (nee Edwards). Oland had kidnapped Lona, allegedly so that he could be married before fleeing retribution from the Ku Klux Klan after offending someone powerful within the Klan. (Oland was a Klan member, too, to be clear, but ran into conflict.) Joe grew up tough, as did his siblings, in large part because of his father's callous treatment of the whole family, and over the years he worked in every resource-extraction industry in the province, from horse-logging to heli-logging. Different chapters are given over to his surviving siblings, with their text placed entirely in quotation marks, so it feels really personal. The largest proportion of the book deals with their lives on Saltspring, before Lona left Oland for Vancouver with most of the children (leaving two of the youngest behind, somewhat horrifyingly, for Oland to use as child labour). As a window onto one family's place in BC history, and onto BC history through the perspective of a particular family and its experiences, this book's unrivalled.

So, why is it a tough read?

First, child abuse: it's child labour, to be clear, rather than something more traditionally nefarious, but child abuse it most certainly was. Families have long had to work hard together, but as long as they were with Oland, the Garner children's lives were lives of abuse. Again, it's impossible to tell how accurate or truthful this book is, but the siblings seem to agree about the outline Joe describes. Joe and Tom were cutting trees and hauling them for sale as a two-man team while they were 9 and 11 respectively; a decade later, after Lona's escape, Pearl and Ollie were doing the same thing. Almost every one was seriously injured during their work, all of them facing near-death experiences, always due to Oland's callousness (or occasionally his violence).

Second, hunting: it was normalized at the time, which means that unlike how the children were treated, this book's not much different from many others. If I was trying to get students to read it, however, most won't be equipped to deal with the sheer volume of wild animals' deaths. One day in 1915, for example, with snow still on the ground and food supplies a little low, the children caught 123 trout from a small lake on Saltspring Island, averaging only about eight ounces each (p74). Add to that the number of deer hunted and cougars shot, well, that's a challenging sale for your average 2020s reader.

Third, logging: if there's little sign of self-awareness on the part of the logger, it's not going to go down easily these days. Multiple times, Joe describes how the Garners and their crew would log somewhere until they ran out of timber, and simply move on. It's valuable to get direct access to that perspective, but....

One intriguing element is that Emily Carr keeps popping up throughout the book. The way Garner tells the story, it seems that Oland may have had a relationship with Carr, secretly. Certainly he'd worked for her father before the children were born and before the move to Saltspring, and Garner's stories do line up more or less with elements in Carr's own autobiographical writings, so it's possible.

But cue the cranky voice of my dearly departed grandfather, who was rarely cranky, one more time: "That ol' bullshitter!"

Everybody with thoughts of BC should spend a little time with Joe Garner, no question. It's not a straightforward read at this point, and honestly it never should've been straightforward, but you'll never find another book quite like it.

(There are TONS of BC local history books, though, written from the 60s through the late 80s, so if you never get to Garner, it's FINE. I won't even judge you.)

(Cross-posted on my Substack, too.)


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