#502 Patrick Lane (1939-2019)
March 09th, 2019
On the same day, the Spring issue of B.C. BookWorld carried the news that Lane would be the 26th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia.
[A free community gathering to honour and remember Patrick Lane will be held on the campus of the University of Victoria on April 20th, 7 to 9 pm, at the David Lam Auditorium (Education Building). This event will replace a previously scheduled presentation ceremony for the George Woodcock Award that was slated for April 27th.]
Patrick Lane was born on March 26, 1939 in the Kootenay mountain town of Sheep Creek, near Nelson, and grew up in the B.C. Interior, primarily in Vernon. His father, an ex-miner, had moved to the dry Interior because he was suffering from silicosis. Lane couldn’t escape the pattern of futility in his Okanagan surroundings. “My brother Johnny got married in June because he got his girlfriend pregnant,” he told the Globe & Mail in 2000, “My brother Dick got married in September because he got his girlfriend pregnant. And I got married in February because I got my girlfriend pregnant.”
Lane left school to work as a labourer, fruit picker and truck driver, later becoming a first-aid man because it paid an additional 15 cents per hour. In a company town of Avola, with 150 people, he sometimes dealt with grisly injuries. Having been a regular at Rivard’s pool hall in Vernon, he dreamed of making his living as a pool player until his teacher said he could never make it because he wore glasses. Lane decided to try writing instead. He mailed three poems to Canadian Forum and they were all accepted. When other poems sent to PRISM at UBC were rejected, Earle Birney nonetheless sent him an encouraging letter of praise.
Lane came to Vancouver after the death of his brother Richard (Red) Lane, also a poet, in 1964, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. After three children, he and his wife divorced and she married a rich man. Lane was astonished to hear the poetry of Al Purdy, a mentor-to-be, who later drank with him at the Cecil Hotel in Vancouver, and his course was set. He also received some early encouragement from Earle Birney.
In 1965, along with bill bissett, Jim Brown and Seymour Mayne, Lane began one of the first literary publishing houses in counter-cultural Kitsilano called Very Stone House Press. Its first books appeared under the imprint Talonbooks/Very Stone House. Talonbooks and Very Stone House had become separate imprints by 1967. The latter would publish poetry by Red Lane and Pat Lowther’s This Difficult Flowring.
In 1968, Patrick Lane was jarred by the shooting death of his father by a customer who had a grudge against the earth moving equipment company for which his father was an employee. In 1969, Lane moved to Trumansburg, New York to work on the New American and Canadian Poetry periodical. Very Stone House Press became Very Stone House Press in Transit for ten years. Down and out in Toronto, Lane sold his literary papers to McMaster University for $3,000 in 1971 and took off, wandering through South America for three years. He almost died after being bitten by a poisonous centipede. It was one more close call, having survived several severe car crashes.
In 1972 Lane was awarded the York University Poetry Award for his book Mountain Oysters. Since then he won some of the major poetry prizes in Canada including the Governor General’s Award in 1979, the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry in 1988 and the Dorothy Livesay Prize.
Lane’s first published story ‘Rabbits’ appeared in Canadian Forum in 1985 and received a National Magazine Award; seven years later he published his first collection of fiction. Having survived broken marriages and addiction to alcohol, Lane nonetheless produced more than 20 books of poetry.
Lane returned to the West Coast to live with his partner and fellow poet Lorna Crozier, both of whom taught writing at the University of Victoria. They met a writers’ workshop in Saskatchewan in 1976 when Crozier was married. He was the father of five children and also a grandfather.
Fellow poet Susan Musgrave organized a 55th birthday celebration for Lane in 1994, gathering 54 poets for a commemorative volume called Because You Love Being a Stranger. He was well-liked by his students and revered by his writing colleagues, but his reputation for bluntness often preceded him. Over the years Lane mellowed somewhat into a ruminative soul, writing evocative descriptions of wildlife and flowers as a passionate gardener for his memoir called There Is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden. “Guilt is the emotion that wastes a life,” he wrote. Regret, guilt, violence, shotgun weddings, thievery, carnivals, drunkenness, deaths. Ostensibly There is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden is an uplifting work of a man who kicked alcoholism in 1999 by taking refuge in his garden, observing his pond and flowers, but it’s mostly memorable as autobiographical litany of finely etched pain. The death of Lane’s revered older brother Richard ‘Red’ Lane, also a gifted poet, was fundamental. At his wife’s urging, Lane had kicked his brother out of their trailer in Merritt two months before his death.
“Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s while I struggled with my early poems, I lived in a trailer park in Merritt, a wretched, dusty mill town in southern British Columbia. My two children were three years and one year old and my young wife tried and failed daily to be happy in the miserable trailer the bank owned. I left that flaking aluminum prison each morning for a job in the sawmill, the only life I knew then, though I laboured late into the night on writing my poems. I think it was poetry that save me from killing myself or killing others. There were times when I sucked the steel barrel of my Lee-Enfield rifle or, worse, aimed it at a passing pickup truck. What saved my wife I do not know. In December 1964, there was a phone call late at night from my sister, Linda, telling me Dick was dead. I borrowed my boss’s car and drove crazily over the winding mountain roads to Vernon, where my birth family huddled, waiting for his ashes to be shipped up from Vancouver. In four more years I would be gone, my wife remarried and my children lost to me. After my divorce I lived in a fury. I ranged from woman to girl, friend to stranger, bar to barrio, city to village, all designed with one end in mind, to kill myself or at least kill whatever it was that daily ate me alive. I made women fall in love with me and then discarded them like chaff. Guilt, fear, self-pity, self-loathing, self-destruction, all and none of them. I remember little of those years. Much of it is blacked out by depression, alcohol, and drugs. I remember waking up in a car wreck in a snowbound field south of Prince George and wondering why I was still alive. I pried the barbed wire off the door and walked away in search of a bar.”
In 2005, There is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden was nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, the Pearson Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the new British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. It received the first BC Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. In the same year Go Leaving Strange was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Prize.
In 2007, Patrick Lane received the fourth annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. Later that year he released a new collection of poems, Last Water Songs, that included poems about deceased Canadian writers he had known: his brother Red Lane, Adele Wiseman, Al Pittman, Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Anne Szumigalski, Bronwen Wallace, Earle Birney, Elizabeth Smart, Frank Scott, Gwendolyn MacEwan, John Newlove, Milton Acorn (known as “Uncle Miltie” to Lane’s kids), the murderer Roy Lowther, Pat Lowther and Irving Layton.
Anyone somewhat familiar with Patrick Lane’s past will see autobiographical elements in his first novel, Red Dog, Red Dog, about two brothers in a unnamed Okanagan town–and the possibilities for redemption and forgiveness. The story is redolent of Lane’s harrowing upbringing and the desperation of feeling trapped within patterns of violence and secrecy. The story is partly narrated by one of the dead infant daughters buried by the boys’ violent father, Elmer Stark. While the older brother, Eddy, acts out with drugs and weapons, the more introspective brother, Tom, tries to keep a lid on his feelings. Red Dog, Red Dog was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
After Red Dog, Red Dog, Patrick Lane believed his poetry career was at an end. It was only while revisiting his poems for a collected works that he experienced a rekindling in his love for poetry. That rebirth launched him on a new phase and style of poetry composition with Washita (Harbour $18.95), his first collection of his new work to appear in seven years. Honest and reflective, Washita evokes the loss of loved ones, the breakdown of our bodies and the acquisition of hard-won wisdom. For Washita, Patrick Lane won the Raymond Souster Award for the best book of poetry by a League of Canadian Poets member published in the preceding year. The award honours the late Raymond Souster, an early founder of the LCP. Washita was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.
Patrick Lane lived and travelled extensively and his work has been published in England, France, the Czech Republic, Italy, China, Japan, Chile, Colombia, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands and Russia. He was a writer in residence and teacher at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and the University of Toronto in Ontario.
Patrick Lane was invested into the Order of Canada in 2014.
In the same autobiographical realm of his novel Red Dog, Red Dog, Patrick Lane arguably saved his best for last with another marvelous and disturbing evocation of working class life in the B.C. interior, Deep River Night. Critically acclaimed, it is reviewed below.
Patrick Lane died in Victoria where he lived with his wife, the poet Lorna Crozier, who received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
— Alan Twigg
— Patrick Lane woodpile photo by Barry Peterson and Blaise Enright
Letters From the Savage Mind. Very Stone House, 1966.
Calgary City Jail. Poster Poem 6. Very Stone House, 1969.
Separations. Trumansburg, N.Y.: New Books, 1969.
Mountain Oysters. Very Stone House, 1971.
The Sun has Begun to Eat the Mountain. Montreal: Ingluvin Publications, 1972.
Passing into Storm. Vernon, B.C.: Traumerei Communications, 1973.
Beware the Months of Fire. Toronto: Anansi, 1974.
Unborn Things: South American Poems. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1975.
Albino Pheasants. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1977.
Poems, New & Selected. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1978. — winner of the Governor-General’s Award
The Measure. Windsor, Ont.: Black Moss, 1980.
Woman in the Dust. Oakville, Ont.: Mosaic, 1983.
A Linen Crow, a Caftan Magpie. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1984.
For Riel in that Gawdam Prison. Burnaby, B.C.: Blackfish Press, 1985.
Selected Poems. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987. — winner of Canadian Authors Association Award
Milford and Me. Regina: Coteau Books, 1989. — poems for children
Winter. Regina: Coteau Books, 1990.
Mortal Remains. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1991.
How Do You Spell Beautiful?: and Other Stories. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1992. — stories
Too Spare, Too Fierce. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 1995.
The Bare Plum of Winter Rain. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour, 2000.
Notes From the Belly of the Beast (edited w/Lorna Crozier). Greystone 2001
What the Stones Remember – Trumpeter Books (USA) 2002
Moving Small Stories (Victoria: Frog Hollow Press, 2003). Limited edition, edited by Patrick Lane.
There Is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden (M&S, 2004) 0-7710-4633-2
Go Leaving Strange, Poems (Harbour, 2004)
Last Water Song – (Harbour 2007)
Red Dog, Red Dog – (M&S 2008).
Witness: Selected Poems 1970-2010. (Harbour, 2010) 978-155017-508-0 : $16.95
The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane (Harbour 2011). Edited with an introduction by Russell Morton Brown and Donna Bennett, with an Afterword by Nicholas Bradley. $44.95 978-1-55017-547-5
Washita: New Poems (Harbour 2014) $18.95 978-1-55017-676-6
Deep River Night (M&S 2018). $32. 978-0-7710-4817-3
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2018]
Patrick Lane Interview
April 07th, 2008
When Patrick Lane was living in Saskatoon, he was interviewed by Alan Twigg in 1988. He subsequently became the first writers to appear on the cover of BC BookWorld.
T: How much do you see yourself as a product of BC?
LANE: Quite a lot. I grew up in British Columbia in the post-war years. This was before the industrialization of the late fifties when this province was transformed by Macmillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser and other large companies. Before that, the little towns where I grew up were tiny communities, self-contained universes all of their own. There was no television. The global village hadn’t happened yet. We were a quasi industrialized collection of serfs and masters.
If somebody got injured or hurt, that was just too bad. There was no compensation to speak of. The IW A had organized only a few of the bigger mills. In fact, I hated unions when I was a kid. I thought unions were a sign of weakness. The real working class wouldn’t belong to a union. I think if I remain true to anything I remain true to that world I came out of, and to the people I knew intimately. In that pure intuitive sense you understand the class you come out of.
T: Were you aware of your particular “class” at the time?
LANE: Oh, totally. Totally. Completely class-conscious. I hated the rich. And I was envious. I wanted that for myself. I used to go with a knife up to the neighborhood in Vernon where the rich people lived. I’d go down the blocks and the alleys and I’d slash the tires of the all the rich kids’ bikes. I did that one September, every night. The Phantom Bike Tire Slasher. I was enraged and I hated these rich kids. They had everything. There was a profound hatred and I desperately wanted to be there in their world of privilege.
T: Was there any shame in being a tire slasher?
LANE: Oh, no. There was elation, triumph. A feeling of complete omnipotence. Of power. The lonely tire-slasher. I felt no guilt or social responsibility. I felt they deserved what they were getting.
By the time I was getting out of high school in the late fifties my father did move into the middle class. He got a good job and a brand new car every year. Suddenly the world changed. I had nice clothes. We had a big house. But then I left school and I plunged right back down into the working class again. There was no way to transfer that middle class onto me. I got married and I went to work in the sawmills. And it was horrifying. Living in “picker” shacks with the wife and kids. I became a first aid man. I was a first aid man for years because it paid fifteen cents more an hour. Instead of making $1.50 an hour I made a $1.65. That meant I could buy one case of beer a month. I’d pretend to get whacko drunk on that one case of beer, then I’d wait twenty-nine days until I could do it again.
T: You once said that you “wrote yourself out of poverty.”
LANE: When I say I wrote myself out of poverty I mean I found an excuse not to have to live the way I was living anymore. Writing, for me, became a way of life. A lifestyle. I delighted in the activity. It allowed me to leave my marriage. That particular wife went off and married a millionaire. I didn’t have to pay alimony. I disappeared off the face of the earth for five years. I left Vancouver. I went on the road. I bummed around South America, New York, Toronto, San Francisco, New Orleans.
In a sense I wrote myself out of the poverty that’s created in dependencies in relationships. And I wrote myself into the poverty of being completely isolated and alone, which I much preferred.
T: Looking back, can you see why you became a writer?
LANE: I was a bizarre child paranoid wandering through the world with a malevolent view of how the social system worked. My brother and I would read all these books, from Socrates on. I remember reading Nietzsche when I was fifteen years old. And Thomas Mann. We made long lists. There was an intellectual system here and we wanted to figure it out. My brother and I read these things and then we’d compare notes. It wasn’t for personal enlightenment. We just wanted to know how the enemy thought.
While we were doing B&Es, I was also leading this other imaginary, intellectual life, or aesthetic life. I always saw that as a way of escaping. I wasn’t going to go to the penitentiary. I decided that when I was six years old. Those people my brothers and I hung out with, they’re either all dead or in jail. There’s not one of them “out.” I know five guys right now who are still doing time. The others are dead from heroin or suicide or murder.
So writing became a way out of that. And there was also a desire to create a testament. I remember reading the testament of Francois Villon when I was about thirteen. I remember thinking, “Pat Lane will write a great testament.”
T: Your older brother, Red, also became a writer. And so did another brother, John.
LANE: Yes, I don’t know too many situations in literary history where three brothers all became writers.
T: Were you competitive?
LANE: Oh, it was really brutal, but I was a tough competitor. I had to be. When I was really a little kid, my older brother, Dick, grabbed me and held me down and spat in my face and I said, “You can do this all day, if you want. But when you let me up, I’ll kill you.” He got scared and let me up. I went and got a two-by-four and waited for him at the corner of the house.
When he came around the corner of the house I hit with the two-by-four on the back of the head and he never held me down again. To me that was very simple and straightforward: this is how we’re going to operate, older brother, you and I. So he left me alone.
T: So you hit him with the two-by four not emotionally, but totally rationally.
LANE: It was a completely rational act.
T: It’s that unusual cold-mindedness that people respond to when you’re describing violence in your poetry.
LANE: They’re expecting compassion and sentiment and involvement of feeling, and that is there in the poems but they don’t always recognize it. I’m saying, “Look, there’s this guy sitting at the bar and he’s driving pins into his hand with a beer glass and everybody’s sitting there watching him do it. This is what he does. This is his thing in life: to put pins in his hands.” This man will sticks pins in his arm forever in this poem. There’s no relief from that knowledge. For me that was crucial to most of my poetry for fifteen years. To elicit response. And to record with an absolute, cold, clear eye. It evolved into a kind of Patrick Lane poem. Violence and a situational anecdote: life is hell. I got really good at that. I could have gone on writing a Pat Lane poem forever. But there was no growth.
T: Your later poems are more philosophical, more concerned with history and asking questions. Do you look back at your work and see the highlights where you changed?
LANE: Well, there’s a poem I wrote while I was in South America called “Unborn Things” in which I said compassion is only the beginning of suffering. I think the poem personified a moment of change in my life. I began to explore the idea of compassion and the kinds of responsibilities a writer has towards the characters he creates. That’s the period where I really learned how to write. Prior to that I was just another one of the hundreds and hundreds of people who were throwing words down on a page.
Then in the late seventies my writing changed again. At the end of all those books I had nothing left. It was like I was a musician looking around to make a new piece of music. A new symphony. God, what’ll I do? I explored for four or five years. Now I’m working on a group of short stories. And I’m working on a long sequences of poems which are very different. And I’m living reasonably quietly and happily, which is what I think most of us try to do.
T: I’d say the poems from your “middle period” are the most effective. The newer work has more references to other poets. I don’t have the energy to figure out what it all means because I don’t really care enough.
LANE: Perhaps I’ve become more obscure. I don’t know. I don’t even think that I’m writing for an audience any more. I don’t expect the great mass of humanity to pick up my book and get excited about it. Did the mass audience get excited about Dylan Thomas or Robert Lowell or Irving Layton? If I write at all, I’m writing for those people who really are interested in the kind of density that poetry can offer.
T: So does poetry necessarily evolve into an elitist pursuit?
LANE: What elite? What poets do you know that belong to an elite? Some novelists might belong, but not the poets. Nobody supports themselves as a poet. And frankly, I don’t blame people if they don’t read poetry. It takes a lot of work to read poetry well and people have enough going on in their lives. A good writer needs readers who have as much time as the writer does.
T: So do you qualify as a good reader?
LANE: I hope so. I find myself going back now to texts that I’ve always delighted in. Writers that I’ve always loved. I go back to Alden Nowlan and John Newlove. Or Kenneth Rexroth. Or Cavafy. Or some of the Chinese anthologies. It’s like listening to old friends. It’s like listening to music.
T: Now that you’re living in Saskatchewan you’ve gone from living in the interior of BC to living in the interior of Canada.
LANE: That’s right. One of the reasons I moved to the prairie is that the people of Saskatchewan are very similar to the people I remember from the interior of BC. They have a sense of community and solidarity and identity. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild has a membership of fifteen hundred writers. Everybody cooperates. There’s none of the backbiting and viciousness and ambition that I used to see in Vancouver. Back in the old days, all the poets would gather at the Cecil Hotel. People would literally walk out bereft and crying because they weren’t included in the latest clique or claque or whatever. It was just awful. The terrible cruelties that occurred.
T: Out of that has sprung what George Bowering calls the Poetry Wars.
LANE: That’s right. The writers around George don’t read my writing at all. Never did. And the writers that I know don’t read George. He writes for the world of post-modernism and deconstructionism. The new intellectual wave in poetry. More power to them. But it’s a small dance step on the side. I do think that Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies is an absolutely wonderful book, the best thing George has written since, god, 1968. But our relationship has much more to do with his relationship with my brother than with our writing.
T: There were three of you connected to the Okanagan and each other. Red Lane, Pat Lane and George Bowering. With your brother in the middle.
LANE: And his history of my brother is so different from my history of my brother. We obviously knew totally different men. Now the writers connected with George remember my brother with great fondness. Dorothy Livesay thought he personified the great working class in a purely romantic way. It was just silly. He just came from the interior like I did. I remember him coming home from Vancouver and telling me what he thought of these guys. Frankly, he was mostly envious of them, and very frustrated. I don’t think they liked his writing much at all. They mostly liked him because he was wild and crazy and he did bizarre things.
My brother was a walk on the wild side for a lot of those middle-class kids whose daddies were schoolteachers. He’d take them on journeys. They’d break into houses and buildings. He showed them the criminal element. Wild parties, gangsters with guns, prostitutes. They thought this was great. And the thing was, it wasn’t great at all. It was awful.
T: In terms of the Poetry Wars, “The Weight” stands out as a statement from you.
LANE: It’s an indictment of Western Canadian literature and the kind of people who have written about our history. I don’t believe a lot of writers have loved their country in the way they should have. They’ve avoided confronting the kinds of honesties that were necessary. Without all the intellectual claptrap and game-playing.
The French philosophical systems and post-modernism and all this nonsense. Instead of real people with real problems. Hundreds and thousands and millions of people are suffering in absolute shit and these people are sitting in their little ivory boxes, dealing with people purely theoretically. They live and write in a middleclass vacuum where only mind matters.
T: Are there any writers who are confronting “your” realities?
LANE: The women. Unquestionably the women. From the cold objectivism of Atwood to someone like Lorna Crozier or Edna Alford or Alice Munro, I think women’s writing in Canada has confronted the real social issues of our era. Very rarely do the men deal with how people relate to each other and how community is made and maintained. The best new young poets seem to be women.
T: So has living with a female writer helped you as a writer? Learning by osmosis?
LANE: Through Lorna I’ve confronted aspects of feminism and I’ve managed to meet a great number of remarkable writers, most of whom are women.
T: Have you become a good critic of yourself as a writer?
LANE: I hope so. I hope I don’t suffer too many delusions about my work. I’ve seen too many writers who suffer delusions. I swore when I was younger that I wouldn’t be like that. To have everybody sit back and say, “Well, it’s okay. Pat Lane, he’s an old guy. ..the early stuff was really good. Now be nice to him. What the hell, he’s eighty. ..” I would cut my throat rather than have that.
T: That’s why Selected Poems is such a thin book.
LANE: I’d like it to be even thinner. I think there’s about ten or twelve poems in there that are really good. You can’t touch them. You can’t take a word out or put a word in. The making of a beautiful thing. It’s an act of great privilege. It’s a great high for me.
T: There’s a line in one of your poems that mentions “a terrible patience.”
LANE: Yes. That’s nice. That’s very true. That’s what it is. There’s a terrible patience in writing. Just as there’s a terrible patience in most human relationships. I used to worry. But I don’t attack myself about it anymore. I’m willing to wait.
I’ve realized, for one thing, that so much of writing is physical. You have to get your body geared up for it. It’s like setting yourself up for the Olympics, right? You’ve got five years to get your body tuned perfectly. Maybe you’ll win a medal. Maybe you’ll even get to cry. But it’s really for the enlightening moment of the performance that you do it. If you’re a skier you mostly like the feeling of going down the hill. It’s perfect and you think, “Goddamn. Five years to get here.” For me, poetry’s the same thing.
T: Except at the Olympics there are millions of people watching the event. Whereas when a poet is going down the hill of his craft…
LANE: Yes, I see what you mean. There’s a couple of thousand in Canada that follow it. And my country funds it. But that’s the measure of an enlightened country. To invest in that kind of dreaming. You’ve got to invest in excellence otherwise you’ll always remain colonial, a people who work for others, a people who dream another people’s dreams. You’ve got to invest in R & D.
T: Poetry as Research and Development.
LANE: That’s what it’s always been about. That’s how we measure civilization. The great plays and poetry of Greece were found on bits and pieces of parchments or a few discarded shards of goddamn goatskin. Our society will be measured the same way. Except much of the measurement is going to come from video and from film and from a variety of other testaments. I operate in an outmoded form. Poetry is less important to our mass culture now. But diplomats occasionally realize how important it is internationally. When Canada needs to ship out a cultural icon they sometimes ship out a poet. It’s important. It’s one of the ways cultures communicate with each other.’
T: Have you thought about what you could do, at age fifty, if you weren’t a poet?
LANE: If I wasn’t a poet, I’d be back in the mills, or building houses, or in the mines. It’s what I was raised to do.
Deep River Night by Patrick Lane (McClelland $ Stewart, $32.00) ISBN 978-0-7710-4817-3, hard cover.
The men in Patrick Lane’s novel never seem to sleep at night. They prowl; they lurk; they watch. The river passing by their camp is their siren. It can be clear or murky, quench thirst or awaken it, but it can’t be stopped.
The forest around Lane’s fictional shabby sawmill community is full of paths. “Buddha told us the path each of us walk is our own,”; Wang Po reminds young Joel at the beginning of the book.
It’s 1960 in a remote sawmill community in BC’s interior, four hours from Kamloops. Run down and almost derelict, the old mill is in its death throes; it’s being run into the ground deliberately by its Plant Manager, Claude Harper, who says this is the company’s intention.
This is where you go when there’s nowhere else to go. Harper, who was a major in WW II, has offered his old war buddy, Art Kenning, a job here as the First Aid man. Kenning remembers Harper from even further back, when he had to stop Harper from abusing a young woman in an East Vancouver alley. Later they went to an opium den.
Art Kenning has been home from the war for 14 years. He can’t put horrific memories behind him. He witnessed evil and now he’s tormented by one time when he did nothing to oppose it. Now he’s barely holding on, seeking oblivion in any way he can get it – in a bottle, in a needle, or inhaling it.
The camp cook, Wang Po, has his own demons. He joins the First Aid man in evenings of opium and liquor. Each tell stories they don’t know how to finish. His war was different, perhaps even more brutal. He recalls the second Sino Japanese War and the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ in 1930. The slaughter of his parents, the rapes, the vicious killings. It has driven him to this remote refuge in the forest.
Runaway Joel Crozier works at the mill largely because his father was planning to marry him off to a neighbouring girl in order to eventually inherit more land for the family. Joel ran away. Harper plucked him from the back of a boxcar, nearly frozen to death, at Kenning’s urging, and he was nursed by back to health by Kenning, Wang Po and the foreman’s wife, Molly Samuels.
Joel is a young man caught between two strong forces: his sexual attraction for the hill farmer’s daughter, Myrna Turfoot, and his fascination with the young indigenous 14-year-old Alice, who has been bought for $50 from a residential school in order to help out at the store. Alice is kept locked up in a shed every night, either to keep her from running away or from being raped by the men, or maybe both.
This is not an entirely imagined world.
Patrick Lane, invested into the Order of Canada in 2014, was born in 1939 in the Kootenay mountain town of Sheep Creek, near Nelson, and grew up in the B.C. Interior, primarily in Vernon. His father, an ex-miner, had moved to the dry Interior because he was suffering from silicosis. Lane had to leave school to work as a labourer, fruit picker and truck driver when his girlfriend became pregnant. He later became a first aid man in sawmills because it paid an additional l5 cents per hour. In the company town of Avola, with 150 people, he sometimes dealt with grisly injuries. He dreamed of making his living as a pool player.
“Instead of making $1.50 an hour I made a $1.65,”; he has recalled. “That meant I could buy one case of beer a month. I’d pretend to get whacko drunk on that one case of beer, then I’d wait twenty-nine days until I could do it again.”;
Deep River Night takes place in just 48 hours. From the very start you feel the maelstrom building around you, gathering force and darkness. This isn’t a pretty story but no one reads Lane for ‘pretty’. You just know that this is a storm coming and it’s going to up-end the landscape.
In this violent, bleak and always unpredictable world, no one seems safe. The would-be rapist, Harper, has been given the keys to the shed imprisoning Alice. And he’s not the last person who should be granted access. There’s also the lusting Ernie Reiner.
Fears and intrigue abound. Joel has to escape the cruelty and sadism of a millworker who keeps bear skulls over his bunk as trophies. Kenning knows something dreadful has happened in the camp and that McAllister, one of the most powerful and dangerous men on the site, is involved. He has been haunted by his failure to confront evil during the war, so, surely, he must act this time to avoid further guilt.
Why does the boy, Emerson Turfoot, feel he needs to carry a switchblade everywhere? In this frontier, where most women lead twilight lives in secluded trailers and shacks, abuse is commonplace and nobody’s business.
The sensitive and artistic Wang Po has finally taken up his drawing again, something he has not done since Nanjing. He was inspired to do so by watching a spider building his web outside the window, a dream catcher. He also finds strength in his beliefs and in his dreams of bringing a wife over from China.
The hill farmer’s daughter, Myrna, and her whole Turfoot family are a hint of better things to come for Crozier. Myrna’s mother is wise, an ‘old soul,’ and the father is understanding and helpful. Myrna’s brother, Emerson, will soon be like a younger brother to Crozier. If anything, he will put that switchblade to use in protecting him, so it seems he has stumbled unto something that could sustain him. So, there is also loyalty, friendship, and honour in this jagged landscape.
Deep River Night presents a moody, unpredictable and non-urban world fraught with danger and beauty, like the river, beyond control. It’s fiction-but only for those who haven’t lived it.
Patrick Lane’s 25 volumes of poetry have garnered him numerous awards including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Canadian Authors Association Award and the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. Lane has also written essays, short stories, a memoir and a previous novel, Red Dog, Red Dog, (2008), a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award.
Cherie Thiessen regularly reviews fiction for B.C. BookWorld from Pender Island.
PATRICK LANE RECEIVES CANADIAN NON-FICTION AWARD, 2005
VANCOUVER – Patrick Lane is the first recipient of Canada’s newest major
literary prize, the British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Premier
Gordon Campbell presented Mr. Lane with the $25,000 award today in Vancouver
for his memoir There Is a Season.
“This award was established to recognize Canada’s finest writers of literary
non-fiction,” said Campbell. “Mr. Lane’s achievements as a poet and
non-fiction writer have contributed immeasurably to Canadian literature. On
behalf of all British Columbians I offer him our warmest congratulations.”
“The British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction marks the first time
that a major national book prize has originated in British Columbia,” said
Keith Mitchell, the chair of the British Columbia Achievement Foundation,
which established and launched the new award. “The four finalists for this
inaugural year were simply outstanding. They represent the country’s best in
The independent jury panel for the award was also introduced today: author
Denise Chong, University of Victoria professor Lynne Van Luven, and retired
journalist Paddy Sherman.
There Is a Season is an exquisite memoir in which Lane, a passionate
gardener, explores the way his garden’s life intertwines with his own. When
he gave up drinking, after years of addiction, Lane found solace and healing
in tending to his yard. Now, he relates stories of his hard early life in
the context of the landscape he’s created. As he observes seasonal changes,
a plant or a bird or the way a tree bends in the wind brings to mind an
episode from his storied past.
Along with Mr. Lane, three other finalists were in the running for this
year’s award: Jane Jacobs for Dark Age Ahead, Harry Thurston for A Place
Between the Tides, and Ronald Wright for A Short History of Progress.
The British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction is an annual prize
established by the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, an independent
foundation endowed by the Province of British Columbia in 2003 to celebrate
excellence and achievement.
The finalists for this year’s award were selected from 79 entries submitted
to the independent jury panel by 49 publishers from across Canada. To be
eligible for consideration, books had to published in Canada in English
during the 2004 calendar year, authored by a Canadian citizen or permanent
resident of Canada and submitted by the publisher.