Month: July 2016

Law on the Frontier

images (1)As part of my research, I’m reading real life stories of the Northwest Mounted Police.  Our public conscience sees the Mounties as glamorous, romantic figures, the essence of heroic, stoic, dogged, upright, committed and brave.  The truth is, the myth and the reality aren’t that far apart.  In the late nineteenth century one man was often assigned to bring law and order to vast areas of wilderness, to deal with murderers, thieves, drunks and claim-jumpers over hundreds of square miles.  It wasn’t uncommon for a single policeman to travel 1000 miles by horse and canoe to bring a prisoner to stand trial in a courtroom.

In 1858, when the Fraser gold rush brought tens of thousands of prospectors, many of them heavily armed, into the British Columbia interior, the miners outnumbered the police by over one thousand to one, the rule of law reigned.  What the Mounties couldn’t do by superior numbers, they accomplished with personal courage, reputation, skill and good will.  One of the reasons for the red coat, was that it symbolized the crown.  At that time Queen Victoria was held in high esteem, especially by the native population.  The Mounties, by fair dealing, established good relations with the aboriginal population.  Even when they had to arrest a native, his people believed he would receive a fair trial.  There are many instances where natives have worked with the police to track a criminal and bring him to justice.

Men in the field (it was all men at that time.  Women were first admitted to the RCMP in 1974) took short cuts that wouldn’t be permitted today, like searching a cabin without a warrant, but given the magnitude of their task, they must be forgiven a few technical leniencies.  If the search produced evidence of wrongdoing – like a murdered man’s wallet – the culprit was arrested.  If no evidence came to light, there was no arrest.

Since many of the men who volunteered for Sam Steele’s police force were scions of noble families in England, it is hard to imagine the loneliness and isolation they must have felt being the only lawman in a vast territory.  Yet they persevered and did their duty.  When the Colonial Secretary visited the Wild Horse Creek mines in 1882 he remarked that “I found the Birish Columbia mining laws in full force, all customs duties paid, no pistols to be seen and everything as quiet and orderly as it could possibly be in the most civilized district of the colony . . . much to the surprise and admiration of many who remembered the early days of the state of California.”

In our cynical age, it is popular to scoff at Duddly DoRight, but I’d rather trust my safety to a determined, methodical, dogged servant of the law, intent on doing the right thing, than on some wise-cracking talk-show host, bent on raising his ratings.

Mounties and other police are still dying to” Maintiens le Droit” (hold the right).  We owe them our thanks and admiration.

 

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Working Hands

13307406_10153789463354296_3231375144010294449_n Continuing my theme of the hard-working pioneer, the lady pictured here is baking bread — at the age of 90.  Once the habit of hard work is established it cannot be broken.
Family lore holds that in the early years, she’d lay her baby in the shade of a tree with an older child standing guard while she picked blueberries.  Then she’d carry  the baby and the berries a half-mile to the house and set about making pies.  As the years passed and the family grew, she routinely put up ninety quarts of wild strawberries every summer.  Note, those are wild strawberries, tiny little things no bigger than the tip of your baby finger.  Picking ninety quarts is a mind-boggling task, never mind preserving them in jars sterilized and processed on a wood-burning stove in summer.
Of course, picking and preserving fruit were extra chores.  Her regular days consisted of baking bread, churning butter, washing clothes on a scrub-board, scrubbing pine floors with lye soap.  Then, when the children were in bed, getting out her sewing machine and making the children’s clothes.  She also spun the wool from her own sheep and knitted mitts and socks for her brood.
So many of the tasks we look on now as hobbies or crafts, were necessities of life to the pioneer woman and she did it all without electricity or running water, or store-bought aids, like soap.

There is another story of her husband being annoyed because she’d been put to extra labour to entertain some visiting men while she herself was still recovering from a bout of pleurisy.  In her words “I was recovering because I was in active service.  There was no one to take my place.”
While her offspring like me are aghast at the mountains of work she accomplished, she didn’t complain or sigh.  In fact her memoirs are filled with descriptions of happy times, like the annual Fall Fair, and her pride and excitement when a horse or cow from their farm came home with a blue ribbon.

Her life revolved around her family, her faith and the farm.  She nursed her children through whooping cough and scarlet fever and ‘flu.  She sent one boy to the Great War in 1914 and another to WWII in 1939, then welcomed them home when the conflicts ended.  She lived a very long life, saw the world go from horse and buggy to a man on the moon.  Through all these momentous changes, she kept her focus — family, faith, farm.

Not a bad recipe for a good life.
Here is her recipe for hand soap.

Have grease rendered.
Take 9 cups of grease and put in crock. Heat to lukewarm.
Put 1 can Gillette’s lye in 6 cups soft cold water.  Stir until thoroughly mixed.  Lye will heat the water.  Put 1/2 cup borax, two table spoons ammonia and stir, leave it to cool until lukewarm.  Pour lye in with grease and beat (by hand!)for 10 minutes or until it looks like honey.  Bake in layers.

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Romance or Drudgery

P1020575I’m currently working on the third book in my Prospect series. Like The Man for Her and Her One and Only, it is set in the mythical gold rush town of Prospect in the Rocky Mountains. The time is 1890. The railway has come through the town so travel is easier, the population is growing and the town is taking on some of the trappings of a city of the time. Still, there is a sense of the wilderness on the doorstep. Rogues masquerade as upstanding citizens, upstanding citizens will risk all for a chance to strike it rich on the gold creeks. It is a wonderful setting for a romance, bold men and daring women, a rugged landscape, and a sense of wildness and freedom.
I’m having fun writing the story and researching the times. Of course, I’ve explored this setting before, but there is always more to learn, some little nugget of information that fires the imagination.
But the life of the pioneer was not all romance. There was work, hard, unremitting, necessary work. If a man didn’t work his fields and grow a successful crop, his family went hungry. If a woman could not preserve the bounty of harvest, the winter months were lean. Storm, drought, fire, were a constant threat.
I’ve found a little of that in my own family history. This is an excerpt from a toast written by one of my relatives to celebrate our pioneer ancestors.
“Thou cruel days, those lonely nights,
How can I the picture paint
Of endless toil and lonesome frights
In that land of the Northern Lights?

With Pioneer John to the lumber camps gone
Where the tote-road became his highway
His steadfast wife sustained all life
At home, in Temperance Valley.
. . .
The father came home, when the camps closed down
His sleigh-bells rang a jubilant message
They were heard from afar, the door was ajar
his winter of labour was over.
. . .
The dog chased his tail, he was only a pup
The cats and their kittens gamboled in glee,
In Temperance Valley happy days had begun
Pioneer John was his own man again.”

It’s that line “his own man again,” that resonates with me. There may have been easier paths than that of the pioneer, but those paths depended on the good will of some other man. For men like my grandfather, and the men I write about in my books, to “be his own man,” is worth all the sacrifice, all the toil, all the hardship.
I hope, in some way, that my stories pay homage to those brave men and women who trekked into the unknown, faced the fury of nature, and came through to peace and plenty at the end of the day.

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Lessons in Storytelling

P1020062Last week I had a visit with my not-quite 4-year-old great niece. Part of our conversation consisted of her laying out all her toys – figures, books, squares, coloured cloth, rocks — and telling me a story. I heard bits of Cinderella, echoes of Goldilocks, and lessons from a farmer. There were fish, which, for some reason required mud. As items got moved about, I was reminded over and over “don’t touch,” because the story required that all the bits and pieces be in their proper place, as determined by the author.  Good advice for any storyteller during the first flush of creativity.  While the story is new and fragile and only just revealing itself, it’s best to tell your inner editor, (or well-meaning friends) “don’t touch.”  The words need to pour out, redundancies, repetitions and irrelevancies untouched as they flow onto the page.

The story meandered on and on, the various pieces seemingly unrelated, the plot line indiscernible and the characters rather wooden.  Yet words spilled out, props were shifted, a doll’s arms adjusted, a book on Rudolph ( in high summer?) acted as a foundation for the entire ensemble.  Clearly story-boarding is built-in to children.  We re-learn that technique as adult writers.

For me, the listener, the story didn’t make a lot of sense but  the joy of the storyteller was unmistakeable, and she knew where she was going with all of this. Eventually bedtime put an end to the tale, but I’m sure it will be continued with endless adventures for the fish and the farmer and the elephant.

There was no editor for this story, no “market,” just a little girl stringing words together and having a whale of a time. I felt privileged to listen in.

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