Monday, October 17, 2005

book review Challenge the Wilderness

Challenge the Wilderness
by George Tomlinson with Judith Young
Published by Northwest Wilderness Books, Seattle Washington, 1993
Hardcover, 504 pages.

When 25-year-old Dr. Robert Tomlinson arrived in Victoria from Ireland in 1867, he was eager to go on to his final destination, Metlakatla, B.C. But the barge had just left and so, forced to stay in Victoria, he made good use of the weeks he was delayed by falling in love with 17-year-old Alice Woods. Thus began the story of Robert and Alice Tomlinson, pioneer missionaries (and the author’s grandparents).

Told from the point of view of Robert Tomlinson Jr., the oldest son of Robert and Alice (the author’s father), the project was conceived by the author’s mother Roxie. After her husband died she made it her mission to get her hands on and organize the reel tapes, documents, letters, journals and diaries so that the Tomlinsons’ story wouldn’t die.

The book relates incident after incident about the brave, dedicated and hardworking couple Alice and Robert, and their children, with a special focus on Robert Jr. From the canoe trip Dr. Tomlinson made from Kincolith to Victoria to claim his bride a year after they met, to the family’s several moves – from Kincolith, to Kispiox, to Metlakatla, to Meanskinisht (now Cedarvale), and finally to Metlakatla Alaska with other short sorjourns in between – there is never a dull moment.

Having just traveled this rugged country myself this summer, I shuddered at the picture in the book of the primitive suspension bridge, looking like untidily tied together toothpicks, over the Hagwilget Canyon. I understood perfectly when I read that Alice negotiated it on hands and knees. I marveled at the family’s commitment to spread the Gospel, their hardiness as they braved mountain terrain and treacherous rivers when moving from place to another, and their ingenuity and resourcefulness as they carved homes out of the wilderness and in the process built businesses like fish canneries and sawmills to benefit themselves and the natives. I was often amazed at the doctor’s generosity and wisdom. He never charged for his medical help and handled difficult situations with fairness and respect for others. For example at one time when the government surveyors were coming around prior to establishing reserves, Dr. Tomlinson, opposed to that idea, bought up a huge tract of land. He leased it to the natives and when he died, they bought it back for the cost of another survey.

As well as being a fascinating tale of pioneer living in the Canadian northwest, there is also a bonus human interest element provided by one of the Tomlinsons’ friends, the fiery Metlakatla missionary William Duncan. At one point, after Mr. Duncan had a falling out with his church authorities, Dr. Robert and Robert Jr. helped move almost an entire village from Metlakatla B.C. to Metlakatla Alaska in canoes over open ocean.

Not only does Challenge the Wilderness end up being an amazing family saga, but the manner in which it is told, often using fiction techniques, makes it a compelling read.

People who are familiar with the area of northwestern B.C. (from Prince Rupert to Hazelton) will be fascinated by this early history, as will those who have an interest in the aboriginal and wilderness way of life 100+ years ago. Good luck in finding the book, though. I read a borrowed copy (signed by the author no less) and I know its owner badly wants it back. I will consider myself blessed if I can someday find a copy I can call my own!


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