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Reviews by the Vancouver Courier and the Victoria Times-Colonist

Vancouver Courier Review: Hume's love for BC shines through Bush Telegraph

Stephen Hume combines the drive for detail of a good journalist with a poetic prose style. Writing about the hidden places and forgotten histories of British Columbia, Hume serves up a thick gumbo of remembrance.

When I see his byline in the Vancouver Sun, I always try to make time to read his often lengthy pieces. Whether he's discussing the ecology of Moresby Island or the triumph of Wendy Grant, former chief of the Musqueam people, Hume has a deep understanding of BC's uniqueness.

That uniqueness, while rooted in the geography of the province, is driven by the history of the peoples who have settled the land and lived on the sea. The best stories - the bullet holes in the bar of the Quilchena Hotel or Mike the Dog who served beer and made change at the Bowser Hotel - are bar room yarns. It's the sort of story a couple of old guys, one with a few missing fingers, can spin out for an afternoon drinking half pints at a terryclothed table.

For Hume, the collision among the remittance men, the gold miners and the fishermen with the sheer richness of BC goes beyond simple history. In the Interior, on Haida Gwaii or the west coast of Vancouver Island, the lures of wealth drew people into the land. Running throughout Bush Telegraph is the theme of working with the land, the sea and aboriginals, who Hume believes understand BC best.

British Columbia is lucky with its writers, Roderick Haig-Brown and Bruce Huchinson fell in love with the Douglas firs and the mountain lakes and were able to translate that love onto paper. Margaret Ormsby, in her 1958 book, British Columbia: A History, made literature of the first 100 years of our colonial history. Hume follows in both traditions: carefully getting his history right but never letting pedantry get in the way of a good story.

Hume has no time for elegant sparseness: he wants to detail the Haida names of the Queen Charlotte archipelago and the battle honours of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. We ride with Gordon Flowerdew, the pride of Walhachin, as he leads the charge of Lord Strathcona's Horse at full gallop "with glittering sabres raised" into the face of "a withering fire from rifles, machine guns, tench mortars and howitzers" in the last mounted charge of World War I. As Flowerdew is shot, BC's colonial era comes to its end.

Hume's mix may be a little rich for some readers - he's overtly passionate about everything from fog to old-fashioned farming. As he writes, he wants his reader to join him in his awe of BC. Reading Bush Telegraph in one sitting can be a mistake; it's more of a book to dip into when you want a good read.
-Jay Currie, The Vancouver Courier


Victoria Times-Colonist Review: B.C. Beautifully Evoked

Stephen Hume has written a letter of love to British Columbia. His book, Bush Telegraph: Discovering the Pacific Province is a collection of beautifully written stories, articles rendered poetic, about this vast and diverse province.

Hume, a Victoria native, resident, of North Saanich, son of Times-Colonist writer Jim Hume and one-time reporter for the Victoria Daily Times, is at home, literally, discussing B.C. This is his territory, and he knows its people, geography, history, culture and bio in a way that floors the listener.

"I'm very interested in place," he said, "how people are shaped by the place that they live inů one is a kind of unconscious shaping of who you are by your environment and by the people who are around you, and the other kind is a kind of conscious shaping, which comes from being aware of the historical context in which you live.

"In almost all these pieces I try to frame context in the human experience. I want people to look at themselves in a physical environment and also in a continuum of time. Here I am today but where did I come from? Who was here before me? What am I going to leave to the people who come after me?

"And that way you get a fully dimensional sense of who you are as a human being. Place is really important to me; place in time and place in geography."

Bush Telegraph is a reflection of this philosophy. Hume tracks down people and history in every nook and cranny of the province. He finds ancient fishermen in old folks' homes, witnesses to history in the making. He hikes into the bush to meet artists and scientists and environmentalists. He evokes a Vancouver that is almost invisible, though "there" in Harry Potteresque fashion, just below the tony estates of Marine Drive at the Musqueam Indian reserve.

"The road finally peters out in a narrow, rutted tunnel of salmonberry canes, dense thickets of scrub willow and brambles that almost seem to erupt from the black alluvial soil. Shadows here take on the luminous quality of light passing through jade. Just beyond the tangled wall of undergrowth can be heard the muscular brown hiss of the Fraser. To come this way is to travel back in time."

Several pieces are devoted to aboriginal, history and culture. As Hume says, "The aboriginal British Columbia that was here before any white people arrived is still here, you just have to look for it, the spiritual and cultural values are still there and still powerful."

This branches into a discussion about racism, although nothing in Hume's book is written to be confrontational. He deals with the contentious issues of the day with a gentle hand and, they are all given a hearing: The fishery, logging industry, aboriginal land rights

"The thing that's important about British Columbia is the colonized mentality we still haven't shed. We have this colonial view that there's no history here, that it's all new. In fact, the history is 10,000 years old.

"There are people here who have been in continuous occupation since the last Ice Age, speaking the same languages, with the same culture and the same sense of history and somehow we've tried to exclude that from our own sense of place."

He refers to American racial tensions: "Black people are living proof of the evil on which the society was founded - slavery. A lot of this antipathy toward aboriginal people in British Columbia has the same origin. Aboriginal people in their poverty and marginalization are evidence of our theft of what was here.

"And so there tends to be this backlash against aboriginal people whenever they start to develop self-government or some sort of autonomy for themselves."

Yet he finds the aboriginal communities he's visited "enormously rich culturally, in fact they make some of our cultural institutions look impoverished by comparison."

For years Hume has had the job of bringing the B.C. that lies outside the Lower Mainland to the readers of the Vancouver Sun. For his column he has ventured to places both remote and easily accessible and met a lot of people, many of them old-timers who told their stories for the last time.

In this way the book has been in embryo for 10 years, evident in its rich density and the fact that each story is a small masterpiece of B.C. lore. It came together in a "six-week blitz" last summer.

There are whole chapters devoted to praise of fog and skunk cabbage, musings both informative and poetic. This book almost makes one feel negligent in their travel of the province. To that statement Hume smiles and says, "Its all just there."

The section on the founding of Walhachin, a pre-First World War settlement, and its romantic dream that died with many of its settlers in the war, is evocative of the English colonial roots of the province. The section titled "The Reef Where Time Began" evokes a magical country where the Haida "cosmology of a universe of cycles within cycles, mysteries within mysteries" makes me want to up-stakes and move to the Queen Charlottes. What this book does, on almost every page, is remind us of the fascinating diversity of British Columbia, at times making us ashamed of taking it for granted.

I ask Hume about his vision of the future of B.C. His book deals with change as much as anything, the disappearance of natural resource based jobs, immigration, and the racial variety of people coming here, but Hume embraces this, is excited by it.

"These changes will bring a totally different sensibility to the place, creating this enormous dynamic which is a kind of crucible in which we're forging a new society. It will be a different place, and I think it will be a better place."

-Tracy O'Hara is Victoria freelance journalist and a regular contributor to the Islander Books pages.