Exploring Richmond through literature

On rainy November weekends I like to take shelter in book stores and leisurely peruse the shelves.

Recently in a used book store, I was delighted to discover a second-hand collection of B.C. short stories that included Ethel Wilson’s “Hurry, Hurry.” The story takes place on Sea Island in the 1930s, before airport expansion and SkyTrain terminals, when Grauer’s store was hopping in Eburne and the dyke systems were, as Wilson illustrates in her story, a desolate, end-of-the-world kind of place. Wilson’s story centres on an evening walk along the dyke.

She vividly paints the North Shore mountains at sunset, and describes that precise moment when “the slanting rays curiously discover each separate tree behind each separate tree in the infinite forest.” Wilson’s descriptions of the camouflage blue herons and warbling red-winged blackbirds remind me of countless walks I’ve taken at Terra Nova. I felt lucky to have stumbled across such beautiful language that celebrates “these islands,” as Wilson calls Richmond.

Along with Wilson, Daphne Marlatt is one of Canada’s most highly-regarded writers. In university, I learned that Marlatt is a Canadian great who won the Order of Canada for her literature. What I didn’t learn at the time was that Marlatt visited Steveston in the 1970s on a daytrip. Something about the village drew her in, and she kept coming back. The stories she heard from local residents moved her to write a collection of poetry published in 1974 in honour of the community and its people.

The collection, titled simply Steveston, brings to life those long-ago stories that seem so hard to imagine now, such as the fire of 1918 that devastated the town. Marlatt imagines the cannery workers at their bunkhouses in the midst of the chaos, and the flying accusations of who caused the blaze. In other poems, Marlatt beautifully links Richmond’s landscape to its people. Some poems are heartbreaking, some are riveting. Marlatt’s descriptions of 1970s Steveston invoked memories I didn’t realize were stored away in my mind: the glinting stucco alongside Hiro’s Grocery, and glimpses through café windows of fishermen lined up along the counter as they sip their coffee.  Marlatt’s volume is further brought to life with Robert Minden’s arresting photographs of Steveston residents, circa 1974.

This past summer, I grabbed my copy of Steveston as I headed out the door to the Salmon Festival. I met up with family members, friends, and neighbours to watch the parade, and took the book out to show a friend. Before long, several others had gathered around to read over our shoulders, look at the photos, and point out their old friends and hangouts. The Steveston collection drew together strangers and friends alike. Although the book has been in print since 1974, many had never seen it before.

Wilson’s short story, Marlatt’s poetry, and Minden’s photographs represent very different styles of storytelling, but I was struck by what links them. These are three artists who did not live in Richmond. However, something about the lands and community inspired each of them to spend time here, and to use Richmond not only as a backdrop, but as a character, fully alive, in their works.

During these dark, rainy, weekends, these books remind me of what is so beautiful about living at the mouth of the Fraser. These works are fitting odes to our community.

Erin Hanson was born and raised in Steveston and is a fourth-generation Richmondite

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