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McNeil, Florence.

Saskatoon, Thistledown Press, c1984. 92pp, paper, ISBN 0-920066-82-8 (cloth) $20.00, 0-920066-79-8 (paper) $8.95. CIP

Grades 7 and up
Reviewed by Pamela Black

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

The study of history and the reading of poetry are two pursuits that are often considered boring and irrelevant by the modern student. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that these areas demand much exploration and involvement before they even begin to give up their guarded secrets, but Florence McNeil has changed all that.

McNeil's latest poetry collection, Barkerville, rewards even the most timid glance with a rich and comfortable view of a time past. One believes implicitly in the reality of the characters she brings to life, and I cannot imagine a better teaching aid either in the study of literature or of history.

The book begins, ends, and is punctuated in the middle with odes to Billy Barker, but even before we meet him we come upon the members of the Barkerville Dramatic Society who have taken the scenery for the "Italian Corsair" out of doors so they can have their pictures taken in front of it. We are asked to ignore the dust flying about, "the rubble the planks/the building like an unwashed barn," and told that if we can concentrate on the players "standing against the delicate painted trees.. In a land where it is always summer/why then you have the picture." This is surely McNeil's own request. If we accept the fiction that she has woven into the lives of the people captured in Frederick Daily's antique photographs, why then we have not fiction, but something like the truth.

Dally, himself one of the characters McNeil breathes life into, seems like her collaborator. His photographs are essential to this attractive book and, together, Dally and McNeil provide an intimate picture of the spirit of British Columbia's gold rush era.

Ultimately, this is not a book about the past. The poems capture the way these stalwart dreamers lived, but they also catch much more. McNeil's portrayal of the miners and merchants who set off for Barkerville, their excitement when success seemed likely, and their despair at the obstacles that nature threw in their paths, provides a view of human crisis that will never cease to have meaning. McNeil, who has written six other poetry books, has avoided didacticism in what could have been a mere documentary with the use of her informal, impressionistic, free verse. Barkerville is a "natural sequel," as the cover indicates, to McNeil's previous book, The Overlanders (Thistledown, 1982). I highly recommend it as an essential key to making British Columbia's historic past and classrooms of the present come alive.

Pamela Black, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.
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