Unfinished Business

A British Columbia writer exorcises ghosts from her family’s past.

My wife, a cynical observer of literary criticism in this country, seemed curious. “Why would they ask you?” she wanted to know, referring to the blue hardcover I had just received in the mail along with a request from the LRC to write a 1,200-word review.

I started to tell her “because I am a writer known for my provocative essays, insightful criticisms, and, and …” but before all the words could tumble from my tongue she fired her follow-up question, “What is it about?”

Paraphrasing the jacket blurb I replied, “a daring silver heist in the North written by the daughter of the bandit, who at the age of ten, watched her father go to prison.”

My wife does not smirk much but when she does … “Anything ring familiar there? A daring gold heist? A ten-year-old girl, father goes to prison?” The penny dropped with about the same resounding whump as the silver boulder in the title of Alicia Priest’s first and only book.

A Rock Fell on the Moon: Dad and the Great Yukon Silver Ore Heist opens with the storybook childhood of a young Alicia growing up alongside her sister, Vona, in Elsa, a small company town wholly owned by United Keno Hill Mines, a silver mining concern, about 700 kilometres north of Whitehorse in the Yukon. This is the land of the northern lights and ice roads, an ideal and idyllic place to be a child. “The almost imperceptible creep of time combined with the material simplicity and communality of Elsa created a universe apart.” Within this universe of snow and mittens, toboggan sledding and egg-on-a-spoon races, there was choir practice and brownies (both baked and uniformed girls’ club). Between playing bingo or sneaking down to spy on the single miners’ bunkhouses, “we’d spread out on the snow, five-pointed angels.”

The family lived in a prefab log cabin owned by the mine but made available to Alicia’s father, Gerry, on a subsidized rent because of his salaried position as chief assayist for the company. There were bedrooms for Omi, the German-speaking maternal grandmother, one for the two girls and one for Gerry and his wife, Helen. Omi and Helen shopped at the company store where the manager would bring in German sausage and Danish cheeses and was under strict orders to refrain from profit making. In Alicia’s words, the town operated under “a corporate socialism of sort.” There was a robust social life where adults would begin cocktail hour at one house, then make the circuit sometimes not stopping the travelling party until the wee hours of the morning.

At home the family played parlour games and Gerry serenaded them with country songs on his guitar, while Omi baked their favourite desserts. Although strict, Father, or Poppa, was equally expressive in his love for Helen and for both the girls. “We were … a … touching family.” He referred affectionately to Helen as Lambchen, but often mocked Omi for her religious beliefs and forbade her teaching them to the children.

Then life began to change. Gerry was mysteriously disappearing, sometimes for days, coming home in the middle of the night. He and Helen stayed up late whispering at the kitchen table. An atmosphere more grim and tense began to creep into the edges of the girls’ universe. Unbeknownst to both of them and to Omi, and possibly to Helen as well, Gerry had begun piecing together the great silver ore heist.

Gerry had gone underground both figuratively and emotionally. He became secretive, short with the family, while at night he laboured furiously, sneaking into the back entrances to the mine hauling bags of high grade ore along unsupervised shafts. He buried the loot in snow banks to be moved at a later date.

The score itself was more labour than heist, hinging on the monumental task of sledding 670 bags of ore to a loading site where he could arrange transport and pretend it came from his recently registered claim known as “The Moon.” Gerry would later assert that a large boulder, 80 percent silver, had dislodged from the hill above and landed fortuitously upon the apron of his claim. That rock, later the subject of much legal argument, would become the title of this book.

The plan may have even succeeded but for a much despised nosey parker of a mine manager who, peering out his office window one afternoon, saw a flatbed truck loaded with ore bags. The driver had taken a wrong turn and then stopped in Elsa to get directions. He called head office in Toronto; they called the RCMP and the great silver heist began to unravel.

Gerry Priest, tarnished and under suspicion, was soon fired from his job and evicted from the company town by UKHM. Alicia was lifted from the pure white fantastical world of Elsa to the slushy grey streets of Vancouver. She and her family moved into a basement suite near Main.

Alicia Priest, the investigative journalist, pieces together the story over the next few years—two subsequent trials, expert witnesses on both sides, cross examinations, evidentiary procedure—in such exquisite detail as to make your teeth hurt.

The story that pushes through is the painful disintegration of the family. Gerry’s obsession with beating the case, his increasing paranoia and his growing temper start to wear down even the implacable Helen. The once carefree, Texas-tattooed, guitar-playing, buckskin-wearing, self-styled cowboy becomes a shell of his former self. He is oblivious to the harm he has wrought on his two young girls, even to the loyal Helen. It is almost as if, self-centred to the end, he had left his family in that mine shaft back in Elsa.

Helen’s health deteriorates, and she is hospitalized on several occasions, while the girls try to fit in to their new life. “As Vona stampeded and I tiptoed toward womanhood, his hands trembled, becoming rough and, at times—there is no other word for it—cruel.”

In the fall of 2008, Alicia Priest walked into one of my small writing classes at Camosun College in Victoria. Class exercises were designed to get people to write from experience, not about it. Many of the exercises asked you to write about what mattered to you, often the wounds we fear. In week seven one of the in-class assignments was to “write down a name then encircle it—someone with whom you have unfinished business. Now write one to two paragraphs.” Alicia sat there circling a name, I have no idea whose name, then she got up and left. She never returned to another class.

In 2011 Alicia Priest got sick. In January 2012 she was diagnosed with ALS, “a relentless, neuromuscular destroying mutation that results in total body paralysis and death,” she wrote in The Globe and Mail in 2014. She referred to the news as her ultimate deadline. “As a trained journalist I respond to pressure,” she stated in an interview with The Tyee that year.

If this family memoir was her unfinished ­business, then she has finished brilliantly, under “stars so big and bright we reached to pick them
like apples from a tree.” Alicia Priest died January 13, 2015, four months after her book was published.