The Early Years.
Lantzville, BC: Oolican books, 1995. 319pp, paper, $21.95.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
THIS IS NOT A NORMAL HISTORY. Historic Nelson invites us to witness the story as if we are an audience watching actors perform on the stage, knowing more than they do, but not knowing the outcome. This relationship between the reader and the history creates a feeling of mystery and expectation. John Norris produces the drama of Historic Nelson on vast stage, vividly describing the geography of the West Kootenay and the colourful characters who have parts in the play.
Norris brings the story to life with rich prose that elevates Historic Nelson to a work of literature. For example, he writes that in the spring of 1882, the landscape of the West Kootenay area, "lay voluptuously responsive to the triumphant sunshine." Norris's powers of description are so vivid that we feel we too are paddling canoes with the early settlers and their Indian guides.
Similarly, the characters in Historic Nelson are real people with real feelings and emotions. Photographs of many of the protagonists, and the author's recreation of their personalities, and even conversations, bring them to life.
Writing Historic Nelson required a great deal of digging through both primary and secondary historical sources, something the author seems to have enjoyed a great deal. Where there are gaps in the story, Norris fills them in by offering several possibilities and then making what seems to be the most logical choice. Readers can enjoy participating in piecing together this historical jigsaw puzzle, becoming historians themselves.
The most exciting parts of the book deal with the chance discovery of minerals and the staking out of claims. Here the unfolding drama fulfils the author's claim that the early pioneers of the West Kootenay "were going to enact a tale of money-lust, betrayal, revenge, flight, pursuit, capture and punishment worthy of an opera." There is all of that and more, including a murder and the execution of a man who was likely innocent. Readers have plenty ahead of them as they watch Nelson develop out of nothing into a thriving, bustling city.
Numerous maps add to the value of Historic Nelson, although a distance scale would have made them more useful -- anyone not familiar with the West Kootenay region will refer to them frequently.
Highly recommended for anyone living in B.C., and anyone interested in history and the pioneer spirit.
Thomas F. Chambers is a professor at the Canadore College of Applied Arts in North Bay, Ontario.
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