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"Golden gift fer storytellin'."

Review of The Golden Spruce 

(Arrow Books, Toronto, CANADA)

By John Vaillant

Reviewed by John Stiles

When I first arrived in London, fresh from teaching at a French school and the freezing SARS ridden Toronto of 2003 I couldn't make sense of the UK.
In Plymouth, where I started, living with my parents my impressions were vivid: yobs tossed stones at local busses, pensioners soaked up Guinness in smoky pubs, sailors argued on street corner, louts in hoodies hobbled down streets and CCTV cameras caught it all. As a sensitive man of dubious employment, I was struck by a nervous feeling: had I made the right decision to come when I was beginning to make a small name for myself in Toronto? Was I smart to make a go of poetry with a girlfriend I had been separated from by three years and several thousand miles?  
The answer came from my father, a Londoner, after all. He said after quaffing a pint of Flowers at a pub called The Ship: "Think of Britain as a giant man o war; the people of London are a structured society of sailors from the Admiral down to the rats." Looking around myself I felt marooned. But I stayed.  

So when I got this book The Golden Spruce at an event at the Canadian High Commission in Grosvenor Square, I was skeptical. Ive been here long enough to get a job (at a church charity), get let go (be made redundant, innit?) get another job slotting books in shelves at the London School of Economics. Ive been here and there in the poetry scene. Ive got married and make my way around the square mile pretty good. Ive read A.A. Gills The Angry Island and understood it enough to know that the English are a clever but hateful, resentful and competitive lot. According to the informed folk Ive met in various offices: Canada has Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Pierre Trudeau and what else? What could a Canadian book about a single anemic tree on the west coast of Canada have to add to world literature?

Well. A giant yellowing five hundred year-old conifer, seen from space in satellite pictures is no gangly shrub and the hunting (and eventual killing) of this tree is the epic human tale of this book, told in equally spellbinding fashion as a book about the killing of a great mythological figure like Che Gueveraor Jesse James. The Golden Spruce is the literary equivalent of Grizzly Man, the movie. The vivid descriptions of nature, hellbent men and the cinematic portrait of Vancouver Bush life are unforgettable. It is also a book about madness, greed, corruption and failure of civilization - since Babylonia. Forget Sean Penns Into the Wild, this is a story of our people our land. The author mentioned in his opening speech that he had fallen upon this story while researching an article for the National Geographic. A short piece followed in the New Yorker with a big publisher lined up. So now this. 

This book is part cautionary tale, part thriller and part poem, but all Canadian History. The colonizing Brits took one look at the giant virgin trees in western Canada in the 17th to 19th century, gleefully rubbed their hands together and started sawing them down as saw masts for a flotilla of trade and war ships. Canada's great spruce trees were cut with abandon during Englands period of world domination. Naturally, the native Haida Indian culture and massive pristine forests which once stretched from Baghdad to Vancouver were decimated.
Enter Grant Hadwin logger, loner and charismatic bushman. Reared from the logging industry and surviving the cold, drunken, tough, freezing logging camps and drugs and violence of Vancouvers lower East side, Hadwin builds a fearsome reputation for cutting logging roads into the bush and up mountain sides. Able to survive on nothing but his wits put him on the moon hed survive. Hadwin lived comfortably with the native Haida Indians and the logging crews alike. Poised to make a successful career, on his own terms, Chatwin was as fit, at 47, as a man half his age. Where others had been squashed like bugs by shifting timbers, or knocked out cold by "falling widowmakers" Hadwin was indestructable. A Canadian joke sums up his tough character. "If that snow bank moves, its just Grant."
So naturally when Hadwin leaves his wife and children (and his prized hand cut log cabin) and starts lurking in the bush, writing strange letters, manifestoes to the logging industry and local papers we know that his decent into madness is not far away. The single act of cutting down a sacred yellow giant Sitka Spruce galvanizes the province in outrage, pain and retaliation. RCMP are dispatched to provide cover for Hadwin as native Haida Indians threaten to kill him on sight. So while a court date is arranged, Hadwin acts mysteriously, gets into a Kayak and starts paddling the Hecate Straight, never to be seen again. Is he alive? Or dead? Why should we care? The reason is in the spellbinding way in which the story is written and the rich mythological world of high riggers, bullshitters, Indian mythology, profiteering multinations, and fifty ton logs. Vancouver Poet Peter Trower is quoted:
Next year we will practise havoc  
in that green trench  
the saws will yammer their nagging dirge  
the donkeys will gather the corpses  
the land will be hammered to stumps and ruin.
This book explains the formative Canadian character, our attempts to build up our civilization, to harness and use nature and the eventual madness at trying to attain (and keep) what other civilizations have built up and failed to keep in the past. A good un.

John Stiles

Bio: John Stiles is the author of three books and the star of Scouts are Cancelled, the movie.