Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Book Notes: Becoming Vancouver

There is some buzz lately in trade-market Canadian publishing about the limited and declining stock of big, researched nonfiction trade books about Canada appearing these days: history, public policy, science writing, the works. The renewed foreign takeover of Canadian publishing is a problem. The surge of popularity of memoir is also pointed to.  But also noted is the  increasing reluctance of Canadian nonfiction trade writers to commit themselves to long arduous research and writing projects when, bluntly, there's never enough money in it.  Academics talk endlessly of their "underfunding," but by comparision with the trademarket and freelance community, they are lavishly supplied with salaries, grants, and other supports.

Fortunately, there are still bright spots. One is Becoming Vancouver, the big, bright, smart illustrated history of Vancouver by (full disclosure: my friend) Daniel Francis, from Harbour Publishing. 

The first of its many virtues is the model it presents for how to take indigenous history seriously in a book that cannot help being mostly about non-indigenous colonization, settlement, and development. Francis starts with indigenous nations, place names, and individuals throughout the area that is now called Vancouver, so that when the settlers and developers do arrive, they come to and make changes to, not an empty space, but a real inhabitated place. I only wish this section was longer, but it has a lot to show historians about how we need to proceed. And since non "white" people are now most people in Vancouver, this new history has no trouble continuing to give significant and appropriate scope to all the communities that might earlier have been marginalized in civic histories but are now seen as fundamental.

It is a non-boosterish civic history, for sure ("Not surprisingly for a place that prides itself on its setting, Vancouver has always been about real estate.") But it is also striking how thoroughly Francis manages to centre Vancouver in his story. There is remarkably little provincial, national or international politics and events, and somehow the story remains clear even when it is always focussed on the city itself. The book is well and unobtrusively annotated and indexed. 

Francis, the former editor and principal writer of The Encyclopedia of British Columbia, among many other works, knows his subject well and covers it both briskly and (to my eye) authoritatively: indigenous basis, mill town, railway colony, imperial bastion, blossoming "world city," and home to a civic-planning philosophy called "Vancouverism" -- which I suspect is really only thought of a a "philosophy" by Vancouverites, but well, read Francis's version and see for yourself.  
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