Howard White


Raincoast Chronicler Howard White's Search for B.C.

THERE'S a place in Howard White's story "How I Got the Dump Job" where the reader gets bounced right out of the text. It's near the end of the piece as White is blasting down a road early one morning in a sagging old gravel truck, trying to avoid the cops. He's been split shifting, gear grinding and all those things men do in rigs when suddenly, just as the truck goes into a 10-wheel drift, you're airborne. "Holy Kenworth." you say to yourself, staring at the page. "I'm reading about trucks?" It's as if you've caught yourself splitting a gut at a rerun of The Hollywood Squares.

Then you scramble back down and finish the story. (Not to glue the ending away, but in White's stories the guy with the most rickety equipment always wins.) White is of that obstinate breed of author who write only about what they know. Which means his stories and poems are about trucks. Big trucks. They're also about wooden fishing boats, tugs and barges, old stumps with notches in them, logging accidents, tides, guys named Pug, women named Connie, LSD, poetry and dandelion wine.

"How I Got the Dump Job" is in Raincoast Chronicles 13 - one of the most recent publications from Harbour Publishing, which White owns. In the 20 years since he published the first issue of Raincoast Chronicles, White has transformed cafe-type storytelling into a small cultural industry. Harbour Publishing, with a half-dozen employees, has more than 150 titles in its current catalogue, including old favourites like Spilsbury's Coast, which has sold more than 20,000 copies. The company's stable of writers now includes best-selling author Anne Cameron, New Yorker writer Edith lglauer and, of course, White himself, who in 1990 won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour for his collection Writing in the Rain. "I've got an affection for the par Raincoast chronicler White: a region like no other ticulars of history," declares White, wrapping fingers the size of kielbasa sausage around a cup of coffee. A former heavy-duty equipment operator at the Pender Harbour dump, he has the thick shoulders and frame of someone who has spent a lot of time on the grunt end of a wrench.

"History," as White intends it, includes everything from Native culture to hippies to old trucks. And it's his opinion that this area has been ill-served by scholars. "Academic history generalizes and reduces people and lives to destructive abstractions," he says in a characteristically soft voice. Theories like Marxism contain an element of truth, he allows, "but they start to create their own conclusions."

This is especially true of the history of logging. When academic historians have studied loggers, they have ignored individual experience for the sake of proving a theory. Preconceived notions equal predictable results: that is, tales of the woods tend to get homogenized into "worker versus capitalist" dissertations. "The logger has never really had his due," says White.

He levels a similar criticism at those urban poets who want to create a dreamy literature about loggers and the "working class." He has called their search for this elusive group an "impossible fiction."

Instead, White advocates what he calls "a worm's eye view of history." He wants to discover what's unique to the coast, what makes this region different from others. His own writing is full of people and events not likely to be found elsewhere: reclusive Finnish stump farmers, boats called the Beaver V. and up-coast places like Hole in the Wall, Yacultas, and Metlakatla.

In one of his best pieces, the poem "The Men There Were Then," White recounts how an old-time faller sliced his stomach on his ax. When stretcher crews arrived, they found the fellow "delicately holding up these gut loops/ one by one splashing sawdust off 'em with water from his waterbag."

White is currently helping research the history of a Union Steamship accident that happened years ago up the coast. A bunch of loggers - herded like pigs into the ship's hold below deck, drowned when the hold flooded. Their bodies were simply flushed to sea. Now White wants to know who they were and where they were going. Generalizations about what the tragedy means will take care of themselves. "I think that is a legitimate view of history," he says.

THE ROOTS of this type of writing can be traced back to the 1950s, when White was growing up in his parent's logging camp at Greene's Bay, on the mainland. There he met loggers of all sorts who defied label. One of these was Robert La Roix, an aristocratic Frenchman who had travelled the world and liked to discourse on the classics with the young White and the rest of the crew. "That was my logger," says White. White's stories are about old barges, logging accidents, guys named Pug, women named Connie, poetry and dandelion wine.

Since he started snatching a few minutes from work to scribble down poems years ago, White has basically led two lives. To his readers in B.C. and across Canada he's been the literate storyteller and publisher from the Sunshine Coast. For residents of the Sunshine Coast, especially those who frequent the Legion, he's the former 'dozer operator at the local dump who's always getting those damned Canada Council grants.'

It hasn't been the most comfortable of lives. "I've got enemies all over B.C." says White with a gap toothed grin. It seems one of White's stories, about a fire, a hotel and one particular family's drinking habits, didn't go over too well with those involved. He doesn't quite have a bounty on his head, but he keeps a keen eye or who shows up at his readings. Just in case,flage characters, as he does in "How I Got the Dump Job," the fraud fails. "It doesn't do any good. Everyone recognizes themselves anyway," he says.

Having recently given up his job as "Solid Waste Supervisor of the Sanitary Disposal Unit" at Pender Harbour to devote his time to writing and publishing, White say: the biggest drawback of his never streamlined lifestyle is that he doesn't get his hands dirty any more. "I do a little recreational bulldozing and that's about it," he laments.

Despite a few enemies, White was considered a shoo-in when he decided to run for the NDP in The Powell River-Sunshine Coast constituency in the last provincial election. Unfortunately, his plan didn't include running into the Gordon Wilson Juggernaut. He was flattened by Wilson in the election, but says he doesn't hole any grudges.

When he's not sniffing out stores for future editions of the Chronicles, or attending book launches, White is a sort of self-appointed lobbyist for the cultural industries in BC - especially book publishers. In fact, part of his recent trip to Victoria was to rain against a proposal that the NDP tax books. Tossing back the last of his coffee, eyes cast towards the legislature, he delivers a classic bit of advice - that could only come from the coast - to those who would contemplate such charge: "I think they should be told to piss up a rope."

-Tom Henry, Monday Magazine