One Book Whonnock
One Book Vancouver gets a good deal of press. One Book Whonnock does not. It’s nonetheless a vibrant community program in the lower Fraser Valley that invites people in East Maple Ridge to read and discuss the same book.
December 23rd, 2014
One of the books they’ve selected is the 1994 edited version of The Eternal Forest by George Godwin.
by Fred Braches
Fifty-seven people signed up to read The Eternal Forest and of those 30 gathered at the Ruskin Hall on Tuesday, February 25 of 2014 to discuss the book. Ruskin Hall was built in 1924 close to the time The Eternal Forest was published, not far from where the novel is set, so the discussions were surrounded by an authentic atmosphere. Readers also united on a wonderful and sunny Saturday afternoon to review the history of Whonnock in the years immediately before the First World War when the Godwins lived in Whonnock. The participants included Lucy Godwin, granddaughter of George and Dorothy Godwin.
This novel, first published in 1929 in London and New York, is set before the First World War. It focuses on a small community called Ferguson’s Landing on the Fraser River. The author seems to reveal the true identity of the place by letting the chorus of frogs sing: "Wan-ik, Wan-ik.”
Whonnock is where in 1912 the author, young and starry-eyed George Godwin, and his wife Dorothy Purdon – just married and both fresh from England – settled on acreage off today’s 268th Street. George Godwin was not cut out for life as a “bushranger,” and Dorothy just hated the place. A year or so later, after the birth of their first child, the couple moved to a more urban home on Spilsbury Street, close to the railway station and other amenities, before returning for good to England in 1915.
The Newcomer, Godwin's double in the novel, is as naively enthusiastic as the author himself must have been. He wants to be together with his wife “…undisturbed, encircled by the bush, alone.” He does not give up, but keeps on trying to scratch a living from the soil until his health forces him to put the property up for sale.
The Newcomers – as the Godwins – see themselves a notch above the others in the settlement. She choses not to befriend the women of the community and prefers to get her practical knowledge from books. He judges his neighbours harshly but he shares local gossip and discusses news and ideas with them and learns from them how to develop his land and work in the woods.
Robert S. Thomson, the editor and publisher of the 1994 version of the book, stressed the historical significance of the book, but reading historical facts into these stories is perilous. This book after all is a novel where fiction is inspired by reality – not necessarily reality itself.
It is tempting, for instance, to take the story in the “prologue” of the founding of the place in 1849 by a Scots master mariner called Captain Ferguson at face value. But the true first white settler in Whonnock was Robert Robertson, who started living here in 1860, and he does not figure in Godwin’s book in any way.
Recognizing residents of Whonnock among those of Ferguson’s Landing’s is an interesting but rather disappointing exercise. Similarities between Godwin's creations and real people are only superficial and Godwin’s portrayals, often unflattering and derogatory, even vindictive, are obviously coloured by imagination and sometimes downright untrue when compared with the historical record.
Godwin describes Ferguson’s Landing as a rather gloomy and humourless male-centred place where women play a passive part and where there is nothing good said about assertive females.
However, Whonnock was, at the time the Godwins lived there, a vibrant place, proud of its new “Ladies Hall” (later Whonnock Memorial Hall) that came about through the efforts of self-assured women who took care of the operation of their hall in the same way they had run the activities at the school, the churches, and social life in general. Nothing of that female initiative and energy is reflected in Godwin's Ferguson's Landing.
For those and other reasons The Eternal Forest should not be understood to be the story of Whonnock specifically. Ferguson's Landing is just too different. Actually it does represent any and every of the numerous small settlements in the Fraser Valley around the First World War (which is interestingly never mentioned in the book) with its people’s fears and phobias, their hopes and illusions, their ambitions, their hard work, their failures, some successes, some happiness and a lot of misery.
The book shows the blatant racism and sexism so common at this time. Godwin tells us about swindlers and ruthless speculators ruining the lives of the common men. He admires and pays tribute to the true farmer, fisherman and woodsman, whose existence is threatened by the seemingly unstoppable flow of Japanese and Chinese immigrants,
Above all else Godwin glorifies the invincible eternal forest. He would go on dreaming of trees, the forest and Canada for the rest of his life.
Jean Davidson is the heart and soul of the One Book Whonnock program, which she started three years ago with the support of the Whonnock Community Association. Her efforts made neighbour talk to neighbour – not a small achievement in these rural parts of Maple Ridge.
[Fred Braches has written numerous articles about George Godwin and local literary matters.]
George Godwin: A BC BookLook overview
by Alan Twigg
George's Godwin's The Eternal Forest is the great novel of the Fraser Valley. It is penetrating as a personal exploration of idealism, revealing as a work of social analysis and sophisticated in its impressions and execution. It ranks with Morley Roberts' The Prey of the Strongest (1906), M.A. Grainger's Woodsmen of the West (1908), Bertrand Sinclair's Poor Man's Rock (1920), Hubert Evans' The New Front Line (1927) and Frederick Niven's Wild Honey (1927) for consideration as the quintessential early novel of British Columbia.
The Eternal Forest was written by George Godwin who homesteaded in Whonnock in the Fraser Valley with his wife Dorothy from approximately 1912 to 1916. Through experiences and thoughts of a central character called the Newcomer, it vividly portrays pioneer life, the prevailing racism of the times, the terrain of present-day Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, the clash of socialist hopes versus capitalism and the emergence of Vancouver as a city. The couple buys and clears property at 'Ferguson's Landing', a fictionalized version of Whonnock, located approximately 25 miles upstream from New Westminster, but their poverty and World War One lead them to renounce pioneering in favour of a return to England. Joining the fray would at least provide a source of income. Godwin followed this work with a trenchant and philosophical response to World War One, newly republished as Why Stay We Here? (Godwin Books, 2002). It has been cited as the finest Canadian World War One novel. [See review]
George Godwin (b. 1889) was one of eight children born to a successful wholesale meat marketer in London. His father died when he was four. Around the age of eight he was sent to boarding school, first in Sussex, then at Saint Lawrence College in Kent. Lonely and homesick, he became an avid reader and was stubbornly prepared to be caned on a weekly basis in order to defy school officials. After Godwin was seemingly expelled around age 15, he and his much sister Maud were sent to school in Dredsen, German, where she was studying singing. There he learned German and became an admirer of the works of Wagner, Schumann and Goethe. As a young man around 1907, Godwin worked briefly in a German bank in London but disliked the snobbery and pettiness of the English class system. His brother Dick had gone to Samoa to oversee a copra plantation and his brother Donald had settled in Coquitlam, B.C.
In 1911, Godwin's mother died. He left for British Columbia, sent for his fiancée, the daughter of a Belfast physician, Dorothy Purdon, and they bought and cleared land at Whonnock. They soon had spent their 500 pounds sterling, added a son (Eric) to their family and discovered they were unable to compete economically with Japanese, Chinese and American farmers during the recession of 1913. Unimpressed by what the education system of British Columbia could offer, and stirred by the outbreak of war, they admitted defeat and returned to England in the summer of 1916 after Godwin has spent several years as a recluse.
Rejected by the army at first due to his poor eyesight, Godwin memorized the eye chart and joined the Canadian infantry. With the help of his brother Dick, he gained a commission from the Minister of Militia and joined 'Tobin's Tigers', the 29th Battalion from Vancouver. They fought in France where Godwin was unable to muster antipathy towards the Germans. He was also critical of the coercive use of religion in war. He later wrote, "what were these marching men as, if not as Christ, Archetype of all suffering, sacrifice?... A battalion of Christs bearing the sins of the world along a northern road in France." Godwin was wounded by a gas attack. Like the character in The Eternal Forest, he contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanitarium near the Arrow Lakes. Returning to England, he passed the rest of World War I in Dorset teaching tank warfare. In the 1920s he was called to the bar as a lawyer but opted for a career as a writer. Like an earlier English 'newcomer' Morley Roberts, who briefly visited New Westminster in the late 19th century, Godwin proceeded to publish a remarkable array of books on a variety of subjects. He never returned to Canada.
Following a work called Columbia or The Future of Canada (1928) and his novel The Eternal Forest (1929), Godwin provided a sequel, changing the name of his autobiograhical protagonist from the Newcomer to Stephen Craig, making him a British Columbia fruit grower. The resultant memoir/novel describes Godwin's military experiences in 1916-1917. The peculiar title is drawn from lines by Christopher Marlowe: "The Grecian soldiers, tired with ten years' war, Began to cry: 'Let us unto our ships; Troy is invincible; why stay we here?'" The original and now alternate title is Odyssey of a Canadian Officer in France in World War I. Unfortunately this novel was published in London and New York at the outset of the Depression and only after a slew of similar works, most famously All Quiet on the Western Front, had sated the market. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement noted, "If this book had appeared a year or so ago, it might have made some stir." A reviewer for The New Statesman said much the same thing--World War One had been done to death. The father of five children, (Eric, Monica, Bill, Tony and Geoff), George Godwin proceeded with a literary life on a variety of other fronts until 1957. He died at age 85 in 1974 and was buried at the Leatherhead churchyard in Surrey, southwest of London.
In the quixotic Godwin tradition, Donald Godwin's Vancouver-based grandson Robert Thomson set himself the task of reviving Godwin's literary reputation in 1993 when he first read The Eternal Forest, having met George Godwin and his wife in 1970. (That year George Godwin's youngest son Geoff drowned attempting to make his second successful crossing of the Atlantic in a small boat, prompting his elderly father to write Geoff, A Family Memoir.) Under an imprint called Godwin Books, Thomson republished an expanded version of The Eternal Forest in 1994, including archival photos. In his efforts "to build a bridgehead through my guerrilla marketing", Thomson had asked George Woodcock to read the manuscript and comment. Woodcock contributed an appreciative foreword, having endured his own homesteading attempt at Sooke on Vancouver Island after World War II. "I can vouch in a special and rather intimate way for the authenticity of the central plot line of The Eternal Forest," Woodcock wrote. "Even the thoughts of the Newcomer, so often strange and inflated and even slightly hallucinatory, are those of a man exhausting himself in solitude under the beautiful indifferent eye of Nature."
The Eternal Forest was favourably reviewed in B.C. BookWorld by Tom Shandel in 1995. It has since sold more than 2,500 copies. Thomson located and read the sequel to The Eternal Forest--entitled Why Stay We Here?--in 1999. "If anything, I found it better than The Eternal Forest so I knew I had to republish it, too," he wrote. It remains to be seen whether Thomson has the wherewithal to republish more obscure, out-of-print titles by Godwin, such as Columbia or The Future of Canada. Godwin's 320-page biography of Captain George Vancouver evidently contains ample excerpts from Captain Vancouver's writings as it examines Vancouver's influence in Hawaii (the Sandwich Islands), his remarkable skill as a mapmaker and relationship with the Spanish captain Quadra.
Robert Thomson has also made a third book by Godwin available via his internet site. It's Godwin's "Columbia or The Future of Canada."
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (compiled by Robert Thomson, email@example.com)
Cain or The Future of Crime. London: Paul Kegan, 1928. 108 p.
Columbia or The Future of Canada. London: Paul Kegan, 1928. 95 p.
The Eternal Forest Under Western Skies. New York: Appleton, 1929.
Why Stay We Here?. London: P. Alan, 1930. 320 p.
Vancouver, A Life: 1757-98. London: Philip Alan, 1930. 308 p. With maps, etc.
Empty Victory. (A futuristic novel). London: John Long, 1932. 288 p.
Discovery (The Story of the Finding of the World). London: Heath Cranton, 1933. 96 p.
The Disciple (a play in three acts). London: Acorn Press, 1936. 88 p.
Peter Kurten. A Study in Sadism. London: Acorn Press, 1938. 58 p. Reissued by Heinemann in 1945.
Queen Mary College (East London College): An Adventure in Education. London: Acorn, 1939. 209 p.
The Land our Larder. London: Acorn, 1939.
Our Woods in War. London: Acorn. 1940.
Priest or Physician? A Study of Faith-healing. London: Watts, 1941.
Japan's New Order. London: Watts, 1942. 32 p.
The Great Mystics. London: Watts, 1945. 106 p.
Marconi (1939-45), A War Record. London: Chatto and Windus, 1946. 125 p.
The Mystery of Anna Berger. London: Watts, 1948. 226 p.
The Trial of Peter Griffiths, (The Blackburn Baby Murder). London: Hodge, 1950. 219 p.
The Great Revivalists. London: Watts, 1951. 220 p.
The Middle Temple: the Society and Fellowship. London: Staples Press. 1954. 174 p.
Crime and Social Action. London: Watts. 1956.
Criminal Man. New York: Braziller, 1957.
The Eternal Forest Vancouver: Godwin Books, 1994. With notes, archival photos, footnotes, introduction by George Woodcock and 25 pages of extracts from Godwin's personal journal. See www.godwinbooks.com
Why Stay We Here? Victoria: Godwin Books, 2002. With notes, footnotes and archival photos. See www.godwinbooks.com
Columbia or the Future of Canada (from 1928). See www.godwinbooks.com
Braches, Fred. Ferguson's Landing: George Godwin's Whonnock. (2000)
Jackson, Stewart. Writings of George Godwin: A Twentieth Century Romantic (Trafford Publishing | January 26 2011)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014]