Vancouver: Secrets of the City
by Shawn Blore
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
207 pages, 1999
Museums of the Northwest
by Harriet Baskas
Published by Sasquatch Books
304 pages, 1999
by Lilia D'Acres and Donald Luxton
Published by Talon Books
160 pages, 1999
Across the Top of the World
by James P. Delgado
Published by Douglas & McIntyre
228 pages, 1999
Dreamers: On the Trail of the Nez Perce
by Martin Stadius
Published by Caxton Press
464 pages, 1999
The Legend of Sleeping Bear
by Kathy-jo Wargin
illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen
Published by Sleeping Bear Press
1998, 32 pages
The best way to introduce yourself to a new area or one you're visiting isn't always obvious. I mean, you can hit the local visitor's bureau or a city or region's Web site or even the local automobile association. However, quite often, none of these ovbvious methods will get you to the heart of discovery. A less direct route will net the most rewarding results. Surprisingly for some, the best way to jack in to local lore and wisdom is often to hit a book store or library.
Every year, small and medium-sized publishers around the globe produce all sorts of books of interest to a relatively small segment of the population. These regional tomes can occupy any section in the store: travel, of course and some stores even have a "local books" or "regional interest" section. But a deeper search will turn up titles in every section including cookbooks, kid's books, history, craft and gardening books and even fiction.
To help you get a feel for what's available, we look at some of these regionally focused books. These selections may not represent regions that you're looking for, but it'll give you a taste of the vast regional riches available: if you only know where to look!
Vancouver: Secrets of the City typifies the sort of guide you'd be sad to miss if you were looking for a straight "in." Shawn Blore's slender volume is partially a culmination of city trivia from the pages of Vancouver Magazine, a publication to which Blore regularly contributes. Unfortunately, Blore has brought Vancouver Magazine 's snide tone along for the ride, but Secrets of the City is still the best place to find out about some real Vancouver esoterica. For instance, where in the city one might find a Xena-fest, why The Vancouver Art Gallery is haunted and the location of some really cool secret tunnels. Included as well are more mundane (though likely more useful) tidbits such as who serves the best cup of coffee, where one can scoop the best deals on designer duds and where the city's best shortcuts are located.
Sometimes books will bite off a whole regional chunk rather than just a single city. For example, Museums of the Northwest is a guide to just that: collections in the states of Washington and Oregon as well as southern British Columbia (even though, within its own country, British Columbia is -- technically speaking -- located in the south west).
Museums does a good job within the promised area, too. Author Harriet Baskas had exactly the right sort of background for the project. Among other things, Baskas is at the helm of "Henrietta's Holiday," a long-running public radio show that profiles unusual museums around the United States. It's not surprising that the book Baskas has produced includes not only cultural must-sees on the Northwest trail, but also smaller venues that would be easy to miss without the proper guide. For example, if you were traveling in Oregon, how would you -- without Museums of the Northwest -- know the location of the giant hairball taken from the stomach of a 300-pound hog? (And there's a photo: trust me, it's gross.) Or, if traveling through Spokane, Washington, you might not know that you were passing right by the Crosbyana Room and Crosby Boyhood Home. You might not have even known -- as I did not -- that Spokane was where Bing Crosby, the well-known crooner, drew his first breaths. Part of the delight of truly regional books is in the arcane bits of trivia that more general works often don't bother with.
Same general area, different take. Seasons on the Pacific Coast: A Naturalist's Notebook by Susan J. Tweit is a gentle trip over the 2000 coastal miles between Tijuana, Mexico and Vancouver, British Columbia. While Tweit is also the author of Seasons in the Desert she didn't seem to like either coasts or deserts well enough to stay put as she's now living in Colorado (Perhaps working on Seasons in the Mountains or Seasons in the Rockies?).
Despite Tweit's defection, Seasons on the Pacific Coast fairly sings under her absentee pen. In 40 essays, Tweit attacks her topic à la Diane Ackerman, though lacking that writer's depth of passion and poetic skill. Nonetheless, Seasons is a lovely portrait, enhanced by illustrations by National Geographic and Audubon contributor James Noel Smith.
Regionally focused books often take an entirely or partially historical path. These over-the-shoulder looks at an area can provide insight not to be easily found anywhere else.
Lions Gate by Lilia D'Acres and Donald Luxton scores big on both counts. An in-depth look at Vancouver, B.C.'s Lions Gate Bridge, Lions Gate covers the topic in much more detail than anyone has previously attempted. And while a really close peek at a bridge sounds like potential overload for the snooze alarm, Lions Gate really brings the bridge and early 20th century Vancouver to life. There's even a hero: A.J.T. Taylor, the ambitious visionary who helps bring the city's dream of a crossing to the North Shore a reality.
In another Canadian historical work, we're given a celebration of the search for the Northwest passage. This hunt was almost as fabled a goal as the search for the Holy Grail. And, for good reason: success in the search meant shorter transport time from the Old World to the New and thus increased the riches that such transports engendered.
As far as I know, the Grail is still missing. The Northwest Passage, however, had never been lost. It -- presumably -- knew where it was. Although it wasn't until the 1903-06 voyage of Roald Amundsen's sloop Gjoa that the passage was charted by (relatively) modern means. It is the time between when the first thoughts of such a passage were hatched -- after the first Arctic voyage in 1576 -- until the Passage's "discovery" in the early part of the 20th century that author James P. Delgado concerns himself with in Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage.
Delgado has the correct sort of background to write an authoritative book on his subject -- he has led shipwreck expeditions, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is the executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum -- but what surprises is the depth of poetry and passion in his prose. Delgado's authoritative account is not only beautifully researched and generously illustrated, it's also a genuinely stirring book. Delgado tells his fascinating tale with a master's touch.
A completely different approach to a regional history was taken by Derek Hayes for his Historical Atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. In many ways, Hayes' book is reminiscent of the beautiful Mercator Atlas of Europe published by Walking Tree Press in 1998. In fact, Historical Atlas includes a Mercator map from 1569. However the Historical Atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest goes beyond even Walking Tree's Mercator for sheer volume of information.
Calling this book an atlas was a bit of a misnomer: it is so much more. Included are over 300 historic maps, "showing all parts of the region as it became known to mapmakers over the centuries, real or imagined, correct or incorrect." But there's more: no map is left to our simple, lay interpretations. Hayes has included detailed accounts of how and why each map and chart came to be. The result is a truly incredible overview of the exploration -- and with it development -- of the region.
Regionally focused books can bring rare and surprising finds. Often you'll find photographs and information not easily available from other sources. In Brock V. Silversides' Looking West: Photographing the Canadian Prairies, 1858-1957 these points are illustrated quite eloquently. As Silversides says in his introduction:
Though endlessly beautiful to those who live here, the Canadian prairies have not traditionally been considered exotic or exciting by outsiders. Sadly, there are no "classic" Canadian prairie images, no photographs that are known to every school child...
I would add: until now. In Looking West Silversides has collected over 150 very strong images that perfectly reflect the region. Broken into six chapters of photographs (The Land, The People and so on) and one strong chapter of Silversides' own text, Looking West is an important addition to western Canadiana.
In Dreamers: On the Trail of the Nez Perce, author Martin Stadius takes an entirely different approach to bringing history to life. Few photos here: Stadius hit the road and followed the historic 1100 mile Nez Perce trail from Wallowa Lake in Oregon to Montana's Bears Paw Mountains. While he follows the trail, he reawakens the past with stirring accounts of what happened in the areas he travels through.
I'm resting on my haunches beside a gravel road near the lower end of the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon. It's near the end of July, sunny and mountain cool. In the field below the road, a solitary cow rests in verdant grass and watches me with mild interest, indulging in the bovine good life, chewing cud. The scent of the pasture, rising with the last of the night's dew, remains strong even though it's well past noon.
While this traveling history take might sound a bit trite, the author brings it off very well. Stadius' voice is lively and his research for the book was quite obviously deep. It's safe to say that Stadius' journey -- and ours when we make it with him -- is much more successful than the tragedy that befell the Nez Perce, themselves.
In The Singing Line we have more history on the road, but with a fun twist. In this entertaining recounting of, "The story of the man who strung the telegraph across Australia, and the woman who gave her name to Alice Springs," the author, Alice Thomson, has a direct involvement: she is the great-great granddaughter of that original Alice. Thomson is an accomplished writer -- she's an associate editor, columnist and interviewer for the Daily Telegraph and has also worked for The Times and Spectator. All of this shows in this solid yet loving work.
I could have been called Patience, Gwendoline, Kathleen or Maude, all family names. Instead, I was christened Alice after a solemn-looking great-great grandmother who had black hair framing a round face, pale eyes and delicate hands. In every generation of my family someone had been named after this sepia woman, set in red velvet in our dining room.
Life works in mysterious ways. It's easy to wonder if fate arranged things so that one day an accomplished young reporter who wanted a mission might take up the story of the ancestor she was named for and follow a previously traveled road. Whatever the case, The Singing Line is a worthwhile trip along a seldom traveled road.
Regional history can be served up in a number of bookly guises. In The Legend of Sleeping Bear, some much-beloved Michigan lore is served up for kids in the form of a richly illustrated picture book that tells a classic Ojibwe legend that explains the sandy area that is today known as the Sleeping Bear Dune.
Long, long ago, before voyageurs paddled canoes down rivers and streams, before mighty lumbermen cleared forests with sharp, shiny axes, before wooden ships carried sailors across great freshwater seas, there was a beautiful forest near the edge of a mighty lake.
Kathy-jo Wargin's smooth retelling of a well-loved tale is perfectly balanced to provide enchantment and understanding, while Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen's illustrative paintings are softly amusing. The Legend of Sleeping Bear's 1998 release was apparently so successful (reportedly over 100,000 copies in just over a year) that the writer and illustrator teamed up again to create a book with a similar thrust: The Legend of Mackinac Island. | December 1999