Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Write what you know. That's what writing coaches tell us. In the case of former journalist and small-town newspaperman Maureen Brownlee, the advice rings true. Her latest novel is set in the interior of British Columbia, 1995 - "Cache Creek to Kamloops and north" (65) - an area close to where Brownlee grew up and worked at her own small-town newspaper during the time the mountain pine beetle was rampaging through the forests of western North America, destroying millions of acres of pine forest. Brownlee's insider's view breathes life and truth into this literary text.
“When the beetles attack, they bring a fungus with them, and the fungus spreads into the tree and makes it easier for the beetles to chew through the cambium . . . It stains the wood, blue streaks all through it. The lumber buyers downgrade it” (156). With its blue cambium, prices drop, even though there's nothing wrong with blue wood if it can be harvested before it dries out and cracks. There's a metaphor here somewhere.
An unscrupulous developer (aren't they all?), smelling the potential for a quick buck, comes to Beauty Creek to romance the Creeksters into letting him cut the timber and build his townhouse development before it's too late. The problem with development is that the locals end up being priced out of their own land. We've seen this time and time again as gentrification has crept through this province. But what else can you do when you're about to lose the only resource that keeps your town alive? And so the debate begins.
The narrative meanders through the distinct voices of three central characters: Maggie, the widowed editor of the Chronicle, struggling to keep her late husband's dream alive; Stevie, a bright, uneducated single mother of two, bent on independence; and Nash Malone, poet, junk aficionado, and veteran of the Spanish War of 1935. These three strong, independent characters come together when Maggie offers Stevie a decent job at the Chronicle and sends her off to interview Malone. In an unlikely pairing, the older wounded veteran and the young wounded woman strike up a friendship. When the gloves come off and the town experiences its own insidious violence, we are reminded that evil manifests itself in many forms and doesn't always appear as strangers or insects. Small towns have a unique heartbeat, sometimes fluttering, sometimes pounding with the force of an axe.
As the mountain pine beetle threatens the economy of this small resource-driven town, we see how quickly a community can be brought to its knees. With a voice and writing style reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver, especially her Prodigal Summer and Poisonwood Bible, Brownlee spins a tragically beautiful tale. A monstrous blue sadness chews its way through these pages, while the haunting memories of Nash Malone weave through the text like a magnificent memoir. I must confess that I was captivated by Malone's richly sensual writing, but found the typeface, which I know was intended to evoke an old-fashioned smudgy typeface, very hard on these aging eyes. But that has nothing to do with Brownlee's brilliant eco-fiction, and Nash Malone is a truly tragic hero.
Cambium Blue is a slow-burn winner and destined to become a B.C. classic. It has been shortlisted for the George Ryga Award, an annual literary prize for a B.C. writer who has achieved an outstanding level of social consciousness in a new book.
Cambium Blue is published by Harbour Publishing.
W. L. Hawkin's latest release, Lure: Jesse & Hawk, is a small-town romantic suspense novel set on a Chippewa reservation in the American Midwest. She is published by Blue Haven Press.