Book Review: Up the Coast tells stories by the light of a kerosene lamp
With endless forests and a rugged coastline this memoir’s humorous and candid collection of stories delights readers, even if far away from civilization.
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2022
$24.95 / 9781774390511
This review was also published in the British Columbia Review
Kathryn Willcock’s rustic childhood summers spent in a remote British Columbia logging camp “with endless forests, a rugged coastline, and not much else,” provide the staple ingredients for this memoir’s humorous and candid collection of stories, even if far away from civilization.
Told partly through the perspective of an adult looking back through a child’s eyes, Up The Coast delves into a child’s life in a logging camp, compares rural living with the glamour of American yachts en route to Alaska, details loggers’ relationship with an unforgiving landscape, illustrates one family’s struggle to make ends meet, and lots more.
As Willcock provides no explicit mention of what she hopes readers will take from the book, a reader could take the small snippet in the front matter as a clue to her aspirations: “My father’s logging camp was situated on the shores of one the most spectacular fjords in the world. I loved going there for the freedom and the beauty and sitting around the kitchen table at night with my family, telling stories by the light of a kerosene lamp.” You may find, as I did, the memoir seems a place for Willcock to gather folklores — from the family and community — largely in the form of rhozzums, short humorous tales, often about local characters.
No mention of previously published work adorns her rather short profile on the publisher’s website, which may surprise you — the prose breathes with confidence. While understanding an artist can be important for gaining insight into the work, you can be content to let this memoir do the talking. And it speaks well.
To establish the setting, a short first chapter features eight-year-old Willcock flying into camp. After which, the family saga begins with her father, John Willcock, arriving decades earlier to the same fjord, the waterfall-clad Bute Inlet which thrusts 75 km into the mainland northeast of Campbell River. In 1935 the fourteen-year-old North Bay, Ontario, emigrant landed alone, carrying only a desire to get hired on in a logging camp.
Chapters Two to Four detail how John Willcock eventually started his own logging outfit, met Kathryn’s mother, and stared a family. In Chapter Five and succeeding chapters, Kathryn and her two sisters, along with the other loggers’ children, were set loose to play “in an area now considered one of the best places on earth for viewing grizzlies.”
This setting is ripe for compelling stories, and Willcock knows how to make the most of it by putting storytelling first, as opposed to exact factual account. Being exact, she says, “would have left the reader feeling as if they were listening to someone recount amusing tales about every cat they had owned.”
Each of the book’s ten chapters contain collections of stories themed around the chapter’s title, and each story within those collections varies in length from two to six pages. Not counting the initial in media res beginning, the stories arrive chronologically, and the book is best enjoyed cover to cover.
Favourite characters from previous chapters reappear throughout. Like Dave who was a drunk but a good camp cook (a rare thing), so they kept him around — even though he guzzled all the vanilla extract. And Charlie Joe who “always had tales to tell and plenty of advice to hand out. After all (he maintained) he was one hundred and eight years old and he knew a thing or two. One of his favourite stories was about the time he saw Christopher Columbus sailing through the Yucultas.”
The first three quarters of the book offers light-hearted stories full of straight-talking humour. Throughout Willcock uses jokes that surprise the reader at the end of sentences, for example: “At low tide, we ran and cartwheeled on the vast expanse of sand fanning out from the mouth of the river, built roadways and spillways, and chased each other with dead salmon.”
These funny moments may make you wonder why the book’s blurb failed to mention the humour. In fact, my only quibble with the book is not the book’s contents, but the back cover. To be fair, the book is about a lot of things, and adequately capturing the work’s essence in a cover blurb is no easy task. Still, the promise of stories that “pour off the page like warm syrup on a stack of cookhouse hotcakes” seems disconnected and toned down from the stories’ oddball spirit. Especially when they feature images that are striking and somewhat zany: banana slugs on toothbrushes, cats eating chihuahuas, and drying starfish in an oven (with pungent consequences).
The memoir’s final quarter (or less) is where the harder-hitting stories live. These stories are about murder, drownings, gangsters, and candid moments with her father, who developed deafness in his later years: “Dad became socially awkward and, frankly, an embarrassment to me and my sisters.” Here, the laughs tastefully fade away to let the reader soak in morality and some of life’s unfortunate realities.
Is this book worth the purchase? Absolutely. Yes, it’s another memoir about logging in BC, but the reader is skilfully guided with humour. The ability to write humour well is a rare skill, and if you were humming and hawing over whether you want to read this memoir or another coastal memoir, this book would be the clear choice.
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