Tim Bowling, The Lost Coast
Tim Bowling will always, I'm confident, fail to meet my expectations, and I'll be disappointed with everything he writes.
This is because his series of elegiac poems on his father's death, The Witness Ghost, haunts me: it's exactly the kind of poetry I wish I had the energy and commitment and imagination to write, and had he written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him. Good stuff, is what I'm saying.
It's not that I didn't enjoy his first novel The Paperboy's Winter, or his other poetry (like Dying Scarlet), because I did, but I missed the clarity and humility of the book through which I found my way to him. With The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture, I thought I'd find my way back to the same experience.
But I didn't. Partly I blame Terry Glavin and his usual insightful curmudgeonliness in his own blogged review of the book (in abbreviated form from his Globe review), but only because I need a target other than myself. Other reviewers have been pleased, but there has been a note of caution as well, not just in Terry's review but also in Cherie Thiesen's in Quill & Quire and Steve Noyes' in the Canwest stable of newspapers.
Bowling is at times a magician with words and images. He tells small stories beautifully, and the small stories add up to a really lovely portrait of a lost time. He does nostalgia like nobody else I know, and it's more poignant for me because it's for a form of life I sympathize so closely with (fishing for him, old-time logging and small-scale farming for me). But ... what's the next step? What do we do after we recognize and indulge the need for nostalgia?
For example, villainy isn't consistently handled here. The founding Ladner brothers and the other robber-baron capitalists get the majority of the blame for destroying the salmon fishery, but there's plenty of blame to go around, and it's not really spread around, except in passing remarks acknowledging that the lost and lamented fisher's life isn't blameless. The balance between lament and blame could have been handled more carefully, I thought, but given the intensity with which Bowling recalls his childhood (and especially the inheritance it promised of living in wild connection with the nonhuman world), I don't know that greater caution would have been believable anyway.
In sum, read it for the recollection of a lost and valuable coastal lifestyle, for the intensity of its nostalgia, for the intensity as well with which Bowling demonstrates connection with salmon, and for the quality of its prose. The world needs more of this sort of thing:
[T]he bee, like the salmon, constructs its brief time on a cycle of leaving and returning, and its returning is a rich sustenance for us. In this way, the hands that reached into the black swarms reach also into the black fathoms. My grandfather's boyhood spent delivering jars of honey to customers connects directly to my childhood of carrying jack springs up Georgia Street to Grandma Atkey. And the faith of my great-grandparents, who routinely kept hives in their basement through Edmonton's long, severely cold winters, is the faith of my parents who awaited the salmon's annual return. (232)