Victoria author John Schreiber takes you on a walk through the Chilcotin to meet old friends, in his latest nonfiction book, Old Lives: In the Chilcotin Backcountry, published this month by Caitlin Press of Halfmoon Bay.
Schreiber offers a glimpse into the history and mythology of the rugged Chilcotin country and introduces you to some of the people who live there.
You come away with a new appreciation of this vast high plateau country west of Williams Lake, and some of the mysteries that abound in its out-of-the-way places.
Schreiber sets a place for the reader at the kitchen table of 93-year-old Joe Schuk, and his wife, Katie, 85, who still operate their ranch beside Crazy Creek in Tatlayoko Valley. Joe confesses he can’t lift a quarter of beef like he once could, and Katie smiles wryly at the comment that ranching is a habit they can’t seem to quit.
Then slip over into neighbouring West Branch Valley and meet Lee and Bev Butler at their ranch next to Bluff Lake. Lee’s dad Leonard took up the land there in the 1920s after emigrating from the United States, and married his part-Tsilhqot’in wife, Hilda McKill. Hilda’s grandmother, Susan Swanson, was the partner of William Manning, the first settler at Puntzi Lake, who died during the Chilcotin War uprising. Lee’s roots dangle into the past like alfalfa roots, long and nurturing.
Standing at the graveyard on the ridge above the historic Graham Inn in Tatla Lake, Schreiber launches into an historical account of the mountainous region south of there.
You meet an array of historic figures in the 10 essays that make up Old Lives, including the infamous Theodor “BS” Valleau, Eagle Lake Henry, Trapper Annie Nicholson, Bern Mullins, Donald Ekks, Emily Lulua, Pete McCormick, and the notorious Donald McLean among others.
Perhaps my favourite chapter is Larry Emile’s Drum, where you get a strong sense of how John moves through the countryside and sees the world. His close up encounters with the people he bumps into peel back the layers of the superficial.
Schreiber describes the Chilcotin through mythological eyes. The old stories have an element of “myth time” that make them profound. His walks and experiences touch on that too.
Sadly, he says, western society has turned the word “myth” to mean a lie. “There is power in myth. It’s more than just telling a story.”
He quotes Joseph Campbell: “Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of mystery that underlies all forms.”
Schreiber concludes that mystery, like mythology, can only ever be wild. “We shouldn’t turn off mythologizing. In the world of mythology everything is alive. If we embraced that more, maybe we’d be more respectful.”
Schreiber credits anthropologist James Teit for preserving the mythological record of the Interior First Nations people. He says the last chapter, This Land We Pass Through, sums up nicely his passion that has drawn him to the Chilcotin.
Schreiber will be joined by Caitlin Press publisher, Vici Johnstone, for the inaugural launch of Old Lives on Thursday, May 12 at the Open Book in Williams Lake starting at 7 p.m. He will sign copies and give a short reading.
On Friday, May 13 he will be a guest of Quesnel Historical Society at 7 p.m. in the Quesnel City Council Chambers, and the following day he will sign books at Books & Company in Prince George.
On Wednesday, May 18 Schreiber will head west to the Chilcotin to sign books and give a reading at Tatla Lake Library starting at 1 p.m. His tour will conclude on Friday, May 20 at Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House at 1 p.m.
Old Lives is John Schreiber’s second book of local nonfiction. He published Stranger Wycott’s Place with New Star Books in 2008.