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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Island Adventure

From Japan to Haida Gwaii

Heather Ramsay

Sisters of the Spruce

Leslie Shimotakahara

Caitlin Press

234 pages, softcover

Glass balls, messages in bottles, and even a tsunami-tossed Harley-Davidson still in its shipping container have all drifted from Japan to Haida Gwaii’s shores over the years. Indeed, the two scimitar-shaped archipelagos on either side of the North Pacific may seem to be curving away from each other, but history and ocean currents have connected their disparate communities for centuries.

Archeological evidence suggests that humans travelled the ice-free coastlines between Northeast Asia and British Columbia 17,000 years ago, and many have speculated that Japanese shipwrecks were the origin of iron used by people in the Pacific Northwest before European contact. When Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway, dreamed of turning Prince Rupert, directly east of Haida Gwaii, into a transit hub to rival Vancouver, Japanese officials lauded his proposed route across the Pacific.

Hays and his plans died on the Titanic in 1912, but other connections endured. In the village of Queen Charlotte (now Daajing Giids), the Kobayashi family once had a small salmon saltery and strawberry farm. They were among the thousands of Japanese Canadians sent inland at the start of the Second World War, but their residence on the islands also reflected another period when Japanese workers hustled at various resource camps that dotted the serpentine coast. During the first decades of the 1900s, fishing and salting operations like the Kobayashis’ popped up in dozens of bays, while bigger enterprises like the whaling stations at either end of the islands employed hundreds of Japanese men. In 1908, the successful businessman Arichika Ikeda employed 118 Issei at his thriving copper mine near Ikeda Bay.

Leslie Shimotakahara sets Sisters of the Spruce in this resource-rich period. Inspired by her grandmother’s memories of living in remote logging camps on what were then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Shimotakahara tells the story of Khya, a fourteen-year-old girl who comes to Buckley Bay in Masset Inlet (today overgrown). Khya’s father has been recruited to run a new mill, while loggers rush to fell and sell acres of old-growth Sitka spruce, a lightweight but incredibly strong wood the Allies used in airplane manufacture during the First World War.

Khya’s tomboy ways contrast with those of her demure mother (from a once prominent but now landless samurai family) and older sister, Izzy (who was classically trained by relatives in Japan to paint, write poetry, and arrange flowers). Khya prefers to follow her father through the bush to watch as steam donkeys, with their giant wheels and yards of steel cable, pull the huge fallen trees to the loading bay. “I didn’t mind looking like a boy. It was safer that way,” Khya says of her time fishing, digging for clams, skinning deer, and making friends with women of ill repute (the only other females in the camp).

As an adventure story, Sisters of the Spruce packs in the action. Intent on avenging Izzy’s honour (after she’s been seduced by a white man), Khya sets off with her new friend, Daisy, to Thurston Harbour, far to the south on Talunkwan Island. Their overland travels through Port Clements, where the girls are briefly kidnapped, and onward to Tlell, where they’ve heard they might find a harbour and a ship, are loaded with hijinks reminiscent of Huck Finn’s.

Although long-time islanders may question some of the details — was there ever a pier in Tlell? — Shimotakahara offers evocative descriptions of the landscape: “Massive trees and lacy veils of lichen engulfed us in a world of ghostly shadows, punctured only by the occasional shaft of mauve light.” Unfortunately, some of her characters are less distinctly drawn. Khya’s father, a skilled man trying to maintain authority in an unruly logging camp, is given little ink, for example. Shimotakahara acknowledges that her great-grandfather’s diary inspired the figure, but the reader never really gets to know him.

The novel tackles some of the racism of the day and the puritanical expectations that men — whether Japanese, Chinese, or white — placed on young women, but many female characters remain victims of male abuse or neglect. One exception is the Widow Stevenson, who runs a hotel in Thurston Harbour and helps Khya and Daisy after their journey. Men like Frank Turner (the only Haida character) and Joseph Adler (a retired detective) also offer support, though Khya retains her independence throughout. “Maybe we girls were better off dealing with [Izzy’s] situation ourselves,” she says.

Even if some of Shimotakahara’s plotting and writing leans on the predictable, she brings the buried ruins of the era to life. I lived on Haida Gwaii for ten years, but I had no idea that three sawmills, a hospital, a post office, and a YMCA recreation hall once lined the shore of Thurston Harbour, now barely remembered, except as a safe anchorage in marine guides. More recent logging still scars the area around Talunkwan Island (protests in 1985 led to the creation of nearby Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site), but it is instructive to contemplate the frenzy of resource-related activity that once took place there.

Heather Ramsay has published two books with the Haida Gwaii Museum, including Gina ’Waadluxan Tluu: The Everything Canoe.