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Review in Canadian Historical Review

Published in Canadian Historical Review - Volume 75, Number 1 March 1994

Local history has traditionally commanded little respect from professional historians. Often written by interested amateurs and incorporating a strong element of boosterism, local histories have for the most part been left on the shelf by professional historians busy researching what they believe to be more important topics and using more sophisticated approaches.

Much of this prejudice has been well founded. Local histories are by their very nature focused on a locality. When also written from within the locality, as is often the case, they tend to be conceptualized anti-chronologically - that is, by working backwards in time to reconstruct the sequence of events that got the community to where it is at the present day. For reasons of practicality, and often also out of economic necessity, sources of information tend to be locally based. Families are queried, school and church records are sought, any local archives are used. Families that have left and the events associated with them usually get scant attention, if mentioned at all. In the case of families still present, a different bias emerges, since it is much easier to live with the appreciation that comes from praising one's neighbours than it is with the enmity that results from having laid bare family secrets. Decisions as to which families' experience are made the exemplars of the community's past often have to do with psychological proximity, preference being given to those with similar histories to the volumes' authors. Persons deemed of low status and those of other racial backgrounds tend to receive short shrift, alternatively to be characterized as outside the community's mainstream of development. Local history has for the most part been 'soft' history, lacking the intellectual bite and research vigour that has come to dominate the profession.

Two recent volumes from British Columbia argue that the writing of local history is changing. Both move beyond the ordinary, but in quite different ways. Their subjects are two areas of relatively early European settlement in British Columbia - the Alberni Inlet in south-central Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley extending east from Burrard Inlet on the southwestern British Columbia mainland. Initially the two volumes appear remarkably similar. Both are written by outsiders as opposed to descendants of early settlers. Both draw on a wide range of printed and archival source materials, which they use to good effect in chronicling the political, economic, and social history of the locality.

The Albernis is a well-organized and well-intentioned compilation of extant information on the Alberni Valley up to 1922. . . The Fraser Valley is far more ambitious in scope and intention. Whereas the Alberni volume is content merely to narrate the history of a fairly discrete locality in all its ordinariness, John Cherrington is equally concerned to tell a good story filled with colourful characters, with the heroes and anti-heroes that make for exciting general reading. By so doing he makes many of his points in a far more lasting fashion than do more sophisticated analyses lacking any sense of connectedness with the individual human experience. Extensive use of photographs, well chosen, complement a dynamic text.

The sense of drama and adventure that Cherrington seeks to evoke works best in the early contact period, when the European advance focused on the Hudson's Bay post of Fort Langley, but it breaks down somewhat as settlement became diffused throughout the valley. Sweeping generalization is no longer applicable to the valley as a whole. Indeed, a principal theme that dominates the volume, perhaps unintentionally, is the relatively small extent to which the Fraser Valley ever functioned as a single economic or social unit. From the 1860s to the present day the story is one of fairly small, discrete agricultural settlements, making the story's telling somewhat fragmentary and episodic when approached from the perspective of the valley as a whole. Another, almost inevitable consequence of Cherrington's approach is far more attention being given to the lives and perspectives of male 'pioneers' than to their female counterparts, and very little at all to Kanakas, Chinese, Sikhs, and Japanese, apart from their group portrayal by the dominant society. In the case of Native people, the author makes a concerted, and largely successful, effort to integrate them into the text, both as individuals and as a group.

The Fraser Valley also differs substantively from The Albernis in its concern to get beyond the narrowness of vision that characterizes most local histories. Repeated reference to events on a provincial level gives the specifics a welcome larger frame, although the author's disinclination to refer to Vancouver and its growing influence on the adjacent Fraser Valley somewhat skews the effect of so doing.

The two volumes attest to a new maturity in the writing of local history. Both are soundly based in a wide range of primary sources. Both use narrative to good effect and, by so doing, convey a strong sense of place that is difficult to achieve in histories incorporating a larger geographical or a topical frame. The Alberni and the Fraser valleys are each distinctive, their geographies having strongly influenced the lives of ordinary persons. Other local histories can equally reveal how the locality long functioned as the principal and even the sole point of reference at the level of everyday life.

The two histories also offer a useful reminder of the value and unpredictability of human life that is often lost in works conceptualized with greater sophistication. We all count for something, and it is in micro-history that the webs of personal relationships intertwining us all can be laid out in sufficient detail to reveal their nuances as well as their larger consequences. For instance, as each of the authors carefully details, the first handful of Europeans who settled in a locality had to interact on a day-to-day basis with their Native neighbours. Certainly, such larger factors as the federal Indian Act and Victorian notions of race affected the ways in which individuals played out their lives, but so did the specific geographical, economic, and social circumstances binding peoples together or perhaps driving them apart. In both the Alberni and Fraser valleys Native people have survived through a difficult century and a half with a strong sense of identity, and these two volumes help us to understand some of the reasons.

The Albernis and The Fraser Valley are useful additions to British Columbia historiography. They also point up the positive attributes likely to be unearthed in recent local histories from across Canada that might at first glance be passed over by academic historians.

-Jean Barman, Canadian Historical Review