I’ve been waiting for this book for a while now: ever since I read and loved Karen Autio’s Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter
(2015). Responding to my review, the author told me of her new project, a history of the Okanagan for young readers, that she was working on with illustrator Loraine Kemp. I have to admit that my interest is not only because Kah-Lan
is so marvellous, but also largely because I was born in the Okanagan and raised in the Similkameen, and was excited by the prospect of a history of my home. And now, here it is, in my hand.
First, something about the illustrations: Karen Autio chooses her artist-colleagues well. Sheena Lott’s playful watercolours of sea otter pups first drew me to Kah-Lan
, reminding me how much I love the ocean. Loraine Kemp
’s paintings bring forth memories of dust and sage and pine in the air, and I can almost feel the blistering Okanagan sun on my skin. (Well, except for the winter scenes, which cause me to shiver in a similar but less-welcome nostalgic response.) The illustrations pair perfectly with the narrative, each painting adding subtly to the reader’s understanding of the historical moment.
As for the text, the opening is auspicious: the book is “Dedicated to the syilx people, on whose lands this story unfolds.” Sqilxw
(skay-lo-heh), we are told in the glossary that begins the book, means simply “the people”—the original inhabitants of the Okanagan Valley and Wild Horse Canyon—and it is with them that the story begins.
The protagonist of Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon
—the character who grows up—is not human, but a ponderosa pine tree, planted in 1780 by happenstance just as a young Okanagan boy paints his message on the rock wall of the canyon. As the tree grows through the decades, we watch the Okanagan people’s lives in the canyon and the valley, the coming of European fur traders along the Okanagan Brigade Trail that runs from Fort Okanagan on the Columbia River north to Kamloops, the capture and sale and culling of the wild horses that were the wealth of the Okanagan people, the settling of the
valley by non-Indigenous people, two world wars, and the devastating forest fire in 2003 that kills the 223-year-old tree that has lived through so much.
Despite that this is a history rather than a gripping narrative of personal endeavour, when the fire hits, we really do feel the loss, not only of our tree, but of so much else. Perhaps I feel this more personally than some: I remember watching the news in 2003, praying that my grandparents’ cabin—the old CPR bunkhouse at Chute Lake, now restored and owned by my cousins—would survive. We were fortunate: it did, while the forest and trestle and other homes were destroyed. The reprieve we felt is echoed in Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon
in the description of the aftermath of the fire:
Seeds from many plants … have been waiting for decades to sprout and now begin to grow. … A seedling sheltered by the giant fallen tree in the canyon is a new ponderosa pine.
The firestorm cleared areas of the park, which then returned to rocky grassland. Bighorn sheep once lived in the park and can now live there again [and] in the Okanagan Valley south and west of Wild Horse Canyon, mostly on reserve land, several hundred wild horses survive and still roam free. (25-26)
This celebration of the cycle of life, as expressed in the slow growth and quick destruction of the ponderosa pine, and the ebb and flow of lives lived in its shade, is deeply satisfying. I hope young readers will feel at the end, as I did, that it is worth continuing, for the real history lesson lies in the pages that follow.
In addition to a timeline (which is almost as satisfying to my hyper-organized mind as the map that opens the book), “More About Wild Horse Canyon and Area” includes more factual descriptions of the history and ideas touched on in the narrative. The combination of narrative and historical fact renders Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon
not only fascinating for any young reader interested in our history, but even more appropriate as an addition to school and classroom libraries throughout BC and Canada.