By Amy Reiswig, May 2011
Rosemary Neering’s latest book proves that even—or especially—in BC, life is pretty damned funny.
Think you know BC history? Are you up on the $5 million-a-year opium trade of the 1880s, complete with processing factory located behind today’s Victoria City Hall? Or how about how Richmond’s Lulu Island got its name, or that rogue camels once roamed Cadboro Bay, or that Russian anarchists ran a counterfeiting operation on Nootka Island?
Rosemary Neering’s British Columbia Bizarre: Stories, Whimsies, Facts, and a Few Outright Lies From Canada’s Wacky West Coast (TouchWood, April 2011) is a compendium of that which is curious—at times downright cracked—about this province’s people, places and predicaments. It’s a collection of over 150 strange facts and near fictions gleaned from newspapers across the province—stories Neering bumped into during her career of research for other writing projects; stories that were too good to let go of, but that never found a home, till now.
“It’s what doesn’t fit,” she explains over coffee and brownies at her home near Mount Douglas Park. Indeed, where would you put a story about escaped elephants in Cranbrook or Swiftwater Bill’s attempt to woo dance hall artiste Gussie LaMore by buying her all the eggs in Dawson? As she says in the book’s introduction: “Into the ‘Who’d a thunk it?’ file they went, to be brought out as this book took shape.”
This 230-page book, accented with whimsical line-drawing illustrations, is not, one could say, of traditional shape, and is not meant to be read front-to-back straight through. There is no real organization to the chaotic content other than being simply sorted alphabetically. The first chapter promises “Anarchists, Bawdy Houses, Bullets, Buttocks and Bears,” and the last warns of “Witches, Wolverines and Want of Women.” Neering describes the book as “dippable,” a kind of bathroom reader or something you pick up when you can’t sleep. “It’s also great for anyone with a short attention span,” she says—which means most of us, these days.
These short pieces—anywhere from one paragraph to several pages—are sometimes direct quotes from small-town papers, sometimes summaries in Neering’s own words and embedded in sly editorializing comments. The book as a whole recalls and fits into the tradition of tall tales and the “local colour” sketches of writers like Twain and Harte. She writes in the introduction: “This is not a balanced, nuanced history of BC that chronicles the important events, people and trends that formed this region. Instead, this book is unapologetically superficial, a tribute to the strange, sometimes wonderful, and frequently insignificant events and people…It has virtually no socially redeeming value. It makes no claim to gender, race or age balance. With luck, it is equally unfair to everyone.”
“What gets forgotten in official histories,” the exuberant Neering explains, “is that people had fun!” And she is a writer who knows all about that official BC history. Neering has made an award-winning career out of exploring and learning about BC.
But despite Neering’s claim about any lack of social value, the book has a lot to say about human nature and perhaps unexpectedly also provides a window into the social and cultural evolution reflected in/affected by changes in journalism and editorial practice.
Neering’s stories are from the now-gone time of independent papers, when editors were free to print what they liked, in the tone and style that they chose to fit their community. From the standpoint of cultural history, it’s fascinating to see what makes it to a newspaper’s front page. While some of my friends mock the Times Colonist for front-page features on, say, a dead cow washing up on the beach, there is something comforting in countering the “if it bleeds it leads” approach, even a story about a man breaking off a nail pulling a potato from his garden, as apparently made the front page of the Chilliwack Free Press in 1911. While some of the weird little stories in British Columbia Bizarre are not that interesting in themselves, it is interesting that they made their local papers at all. As Neering points out in a piece on potentially explosive silk garments, “With no Internet to publish urban myths, British Columbians had to depend on their newspapers.”
Neering’s own attraction to these stories is partly just sheer amusement, but also because each strange tale begs the more philosophical question: “Where does that come from in us? What is the genesis of the strange ideas people have all over this province? You tug on the thread,” she tells me, “and look at what’s at the end.”
This love of the absurd is also not at all as “superficial” as Neering’s introduction would have us believe—indeed, it’s a genre that has long been a release for the steam of social pressures. Therefore, one of the interesting elements of this book is how certain serious considerations sneak up on you: you’re having a good guffaw over someone getting shot in the butt and all of a sudden you realize, “Hey, wait a second. I’m thinking!”
“By laughter,” Neering says, “we can escape the weight around us.” Therefore, for a book of brief escapes, pick up British Columbia Bizarre. Because despite the horrible headlines, as Neering says with a smile, “Life is still pretty damned funny.”
Facing into the wind of both federal and provincial votes, writer and editor Amy Reiswig is indeed convinced that a healthy dose of the absurd is good for what ails you.