In Search of the Good Life

Family history reveals a writer’s roots

Human Happiness, Brian Fawcett’s memoir about his parents, is a tale of love, life, strife, multiple dysfunction and, yes, happiness. Hartley Fawcett and Rita Surry’s story, delivered by their youngest son, reaches deep into the day-to-day history of “small decent lives … grounded in common sense” in a time—the post–World War Two Golden Age of North American prosperity—when dreams of endless progress and a bright future were still possible and in a place—Prince George—at the edge of British Columbia’s not-yet-exploited resource-rich northern frontier.

From the late 1940s through to the mid 1960s, in a still intact local culture and economy, Hartley and Rita plan and lead “the Good Life” (something son Brian says is no longer available to their boomer and Xer offspring, who might lead “a,” but never “the” Good Life.) They raise four children, “Build a Business Empire” (as Hartley, who favours speaking in capital letters, puts it) and maintain a fearless, almost heroic grip on happiness.

Rita and Hartley had both left troubled Alberta families. Hartley is self-made, a true male of his time, architect of a soft drink franchise, ice cream and frozen meat business, a driver of Cadillac autos. Men, in his world, are “superior” to women and “were Created to Lead.” Rita commits full heart and warm intelligence to bringing up her children and asserts from early on in the marriage (which lasts from 1935 until Rita’s death at 90, in 2000, and Hartley’s at 101 in 2008) a compelling identity in no way subservient to her often neglectful husband. At home with four children in a small-town 1950s woman’s world while Hartley tends his business and on weekends golfs with his buddies, she organizes a women’s group to abet the loneliness. When it becomes apparent that Hartley is a great salesman but a poor accountant, she takes over the company’s books. When she contracts breast cancer in the mid 1960s, Hartley more or less abandons her (because he cannot handle sickness or weakness) and she travels alone for treatment to Vancouver. Hartley, never short on acts of outrageous self-interest, makes her sign company cheques before she leaves, just in case he might need to empty her account.

Fawcett writes, in the book’s preface, that “life is morally and physically a mess and that the future is utterly incomprehensible. Thus, true happiness lies in the ability to live with ambiguity.” He contrasts this kind of happiness with the permanent compulsory happiness proffered by consumer market culture where “if … the Good Life exists, it is only for a moment, and glimpsed in flight.” This down-to-earth pragmatic happiness is what he credits his parents with achieving, in spite of themselves and amidst all their shortcomings.

Fawcett, who spent most of his life fighting his often bullying father, “bred true” and is a self-admitted alpha male, albeit one with a different skill set. The two never reconcile, but at Hartley’s deathbed, Fawcett junior acknowledges his own self-absorption, and in touching prose renders his father not only understandable, to a degree, but even loveable. He is tempted once more to persuade dad that his capitalist entrepreneurial beliefs are an illusion, but then catches himself: “I pulled back, and I sat in the darkness with him as his companion. I said nothing, not even in my own mind. He was my father and I loved him … I loved him partly because I was duty-bound to it, but also because I loved what he’d become.”

The heart-felt tone here follows a late-in-life transformation in Hartley’s character but reflects also Rita’s influence on her youngest child. In an interview based on 40 questions Fawcett puts to his mother in the mid 1990s, we hear a woman of great heart and strong mind speaking freely about love, marriage, family, sex, life with father, beliefs, values, regrets, accomplishments and, yes, happiness and the good life.

In the early 1960s, manufacturing and consumer corporations begin to descend on northern British Columbia. They target local businesses, and A&W, Dairy Queen, MacDonald’s and their like quickly put local eateries and grocers out of business. On the logging front, multinationals have bullied the B.C. government into rejigging the bidding system for timber rights, and, between 1956 and 1972, 600 locally owned mills and many more portable “gypo outfits” have been replaced by eight supermills and two pulpmills run from distant head offices.

In the fall of 1965 two business suits from the biggest dairy consortium in B.C. walk into Hartley’s office and announce that if he does not “sell his ice cream operation to them, they’d dump product into his marketplace below his cost until he was bankrupt.” Hartley throws them out but two weeks later a letter from the B.C. Milk Board convinces him that he must face up to reality and sell out. A year later he presents son Brian and older brother Ron with a “Grand Plan For the Future of the Family Business.” It involves the sons (under dad’s supervision) taking over the business. When Brian says he is going to university, not into business, and Ron rejects the offer for personal family reasons, Hartley is stunned. A year after the fatal encounter he sells the business and moves with Rita to the Okanagan where he builds his fifth house and lives even more happily in his 30 remaining years.

Brian Fawcett’s Human Happiness is the best memoir I have read about life in the B.C. interior during a crucial period in the province’s history. Other accounts have chronicled industrial and labour history, and many have recorded personal and family experience of the “pioneer” variety, but few have effectively combined personal with political stories, and none has matched Fawcett’s finesse in joining the two modalities. His narrative works, first off, because we meet parent protagonists, and not, as is more common, the author struggling with one or the other of his or her parental antagonists.

Second, Fawcett genre-bends. The shift of reader attention from parent-child to family-society relationship teams up Fawcett’s facility with many authorial tongues. His previous books have combined narrative, discursive, polemical, even poetic valances, often by dividing book pages. This sometimes clumsy device is dropped here and the writer appears in full voice with no interruption. Fawcett informed me once (full disclosure: I post periodically on the Dooneys Café website he edits, and we exchange emails) that the manuscript went through 19 separate drafts. The attention shows. The Brian Fawcetts we meet in Human Happiness are harmonized into a contrapuntal whole that humanizes the sometime polemical, even pugilistic prose and editorial design intentions that marked his earlier books: the bred-pure Brian mellows, but keeps his critical chops and intellectual edge.

The third matter that distinguishes this book from Fawcett’s previous (and certainly other memoirists’) work, is that Human Happiness is about something. Happiness. Fawcett’s personal, social, economic, political but also philosophical parsing of this North American core value in a book about the northern B.C. booniesis an accomplishment that serves not only all who have lived in these milieus—and learned just about nothingabout their histories, economics and cultural frames—but also serves the city slickers for whom the B.C. back country is often an unknown continent.