A guy walks down the road carrying a stolen outboard motor in his backpack; some islanders tackle him but give him food and smokes until the RCMP arrives. A ferry passenger drives onto the island, coaches eight cats from their cages, turns and catches the ferry as it leaves. Do the tiny carvings on the island’s church sign signify pagan symbols?
This is how we meet the islanders in the Salish Sea as depicted by Pat Carney, 82, journalist, MP, cabinet minister, senator and lighthouse preservation champion. Indefatigable, she has now added fiction writer to her many accomplishments. Her On Island, Life among the Coast Dwellers, tells tales of people we all recognize. We meet the Church Warden, the red-haired female priest, Blondie, the professor and his wife, the wharfinger avid for moorage fees—they don’t have names and so, in our mind’s eye, we fill in their identities. “I know that couple,” we think when we meet another pair that’s gone back-to-the-land on their island paradise, grow their organic veggies and maybe a little pot.
With her acute observation powers, Carney describes the slow-moving tempo of island life (she’s lived on Saturna for decades), with its intense gossip, high levels of volunteering, webs of infidelity, fears and joys. Anyone who has cruised among the Salish Sea’s many islands will instantly recognize the government docks, the small general stores, the denizens in the lone coffee shop in their fleece and hiking shoes.
Carney’s experience as a legislator also comes to the fore. When the government dock burns down, she portrays a female MP who tries to get the funding to rebuild the structure, essential to island survival. Although humourous in tone, it’s clear that finding the money is a strenuous effort, with agency after agency claiming poverty or that (high-vote delivering) constituencies in the Atlantics or Quebec have priority. The unnamed MP (read Pat Carney) finally confronts the Prime Minister during a glitzy Ottawa gala, with the press watching, and manages to obtain the funding.
The next challenge is to obtain agreement on the dock design. Many will appreciate how difficult it is to get consensus on any issue, be it on cutting trees, a new development, a sewage system or a tunnel. It’s no different on an island with a tiny population but with the same strong opinions and self-interests. All ends well when the dock is finally built.
Carney’s writing style is engaging, wry at times. Her journalism experience has honed her ability to choose the mot juste and add the telling detail. Sometimes, her writing becomes lyrical as when the wife, “observed the scene before her. The rocks below the bench were robed in seaweed, sequined with barnacles, tasselled with kelp bulbs floating on the silky sea.” That’s undoubtedly why the book spent weeks as number one on the Association of BC Book Publishers’ bestseller list.
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