'Her books map our province': Revisiting B.C. novelist Ethel Wilson

In episode one of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place — B.C. writer Theresa Kishkan talks about Ethel Wilson’s 1954 novel Swamp Angel.
In episode one of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place — B.C. writer Theresa Kishkan talks about Ethel Wilson’s 1954 novel Swamp Angel. (Alexandra Bolduc and New Canadian Library)
Listen17:48

Welcome to episode one of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place.

When Theresa Kishkan first read a novel by Ethel Wilson, as a British Columbia teenager trying to learn how to be a writer, it showed her great literature could be set where she lived.

"It seemed to me that writing came from elsewhere … I found in [her writing] the landscapes that I knew and loved. And I thought, 'Wow. We can do this,'" Kishkan told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

"Her books map our province. They're almost like terrain maps, or contour maps."

Kishkan spoke to Enright about Wilson's novel Swamp Angel, which was published in 1954. It's about Maggie Lloyd, a Vancouver woman who walks out of a stifling marriage and builds a new life for herself at a fishing lodge in rural B.C.

Like much of Wilson's writing, it includes vivid descriptions of B.C. — but it is also suffused with unease. While the novel deals with Maggie's journey towards independence, its tone is ambivalent, not triumphant.

"There's no happy ending to this book, exactly," Kishkan said.

Novelist George Bowering once wrote that Wilson "genuinely loved the physicality of British Columbia, and used her great sentences to make it brightly visible. There is also a dark universe, however, that turns and looms outside the range of the human eye."

In this novel, that "dark universe" shows up in the 'Swamp Angel' — a gun given to Maggie by her friend Nell Severance, who used to juggle pistols as a circus performer.

"It's kind of held out as a symbol, throughout the novel, of potential malevolence. You think of Chekhov's line, that you shouldn't have a gun on stage unless it goes off. And in fact, the Swamp Angel doesn't ever go off, but it becomes the presiding spirit of the book," said Kishkan.

She urges people to read the novel for the way it captures the physicality of B.C.

"Swamp Angel will take you somewhere wild and beautiful. You'll hear sandhill cranes. She calls it their 'silvery music' — I always thought it sounded like wooden wheels, turning in the air," she said.

"You'll hear these things, you'll understand what it is to hook a fish, and you'll know something deep and meaningful about British Columbia."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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