Trade Customers click here
← Back to Book Main Page

Reviews

Victoria Times-Colonist: Colorful History, Characters
Major Laurence Chapman Rattray stopped for no one except his superior officers in the British Army, and certainly not for trains. He once drove his car into the path of an oncoming train. After the inevitable crash, he was asked what happened. "I don know why it didn't stop. I honked at it," came the reply.

The Major is one of the many colourful characters brought back to life in Small City in a Big Valley, Tom Henry?s delightful history of Duncan. Until now, Henry has been known primarily for his tales of agrarian misadventure, Dogless in Metchosin and for his award-winning An Affectionate History of Union Steamships, but in exploring the history of the town that snuggles in the Cowichan Valley, he has revealed a gift for detail and for righting many of history's wrongs.

Duncan began life as Duncan's Crossing, named for William Duncan, a settler who arrived in 1862 and preempted land that would soon become the centre of a new city. He and his farming neighbours needed a way to get milk to the Victoria market. The promised E & N Railway offered that chance, but only if there were a train station near Duncan's Crossing.
When Prime Minister John A. Macdonald arrived on Aug. 13, 1886, to hammer in the last spike he and railway builder Robert Dunsmuir were confronted by Duncan and his neighbours. Petition followed petition. Finally, Henry says, a thirsty Dunsmuir and Macdonald cut short the speeches granted the demand for a station, and sped off to Nanaimo for a drink at Dunsmuirs coal mine.

Over the years, Duncan attracted Chinese, Sikh and Japanese migrants. Remnants of Duncan's Chinatown can still be seen at Whippletree Junction on the Trans-Canada Highway south of Duncan, carted there by a sympathetic demolition contractor after the provincial government insisted on flattening Chinatown.

Henry tells instructive stories of racial prejudice and persecution: of the Women's Institute boycotting 'mandarin' oranges, of the Rotary Club asking that the Japanese be removed from Duncan in 1942.

But his best anecdotes concern an eccentric tribe - the British. The uppercrust ex-army men and their pukkah wives arrived in the late 19th century and were called 'Longstockings' - for the male costume - shorts and long puttees wound around their calves - remnants of their days in the the colonial army. To accommodate them, Duncan stores sold the Tatler, Eccles cakes and spotted dick; the Tzoulialem Hotel served kippers for breakfast.

One of their number, Col. Arthur Broome, had a passion for doll's houses. "For tiger skin rugs he used the painted pelts of mice," Henry writes.

There were so many Longstockings that Duncan was once called the Most English Town in Canada. It was also called the ugliest little town on Vancouver Island, especially after the highway carved through its eastern heart, and left gas stations and fast food outlets in its wake.

Natives disappear from view in Duncan's book after they were cheated of their land by an unscrupulous Indian agent. Perhaps because most of them technically live outside city limits, on reserve land, there is no mention of the magnificent Native Heritage Centre or of their prized hand-knit Cowichan sweaters. Indeed, they only resurface in the pages of Small City in a Big Valley when the mayor decides that totems would help Duncan become more than a junior version of Nanalmo's strip mall.

In 1985 Mayor Douglas Barker, perhaps inspired by Chemainus's success with its murals, worked with the Cowichan First Nations to erect totems in his town. Now there are 39 of them, linked by a trail of yellow painted footprints, to make easy access for the tourists.

Duncan also gave Canada a posthumous Victoria Cross winner. Charles Hoev died in the Second World War's Burma campaign in a madly brave assault on a Japanese machine-gun emplacement. Another 'native' daughter is Frances Kelsey, the astute government physician, who blocked the sale of thalidomide in the United States.

It has fallen to a native son, Tom Henry, born in Duncan 38 years ago, to weave art, maps, photographs and words into a satisfying portrait of a community.
-Anne Moon, Victoria Times-Colonist