Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown Essay - Critical Essays

Haig-Brown, Roderick L(angmere)


Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown 1908–1976

British-born Canadian author of fiction and nonfiction for young adults and adults.

Like his father, who published a book on wildlife and fishing in 1913, Haig-Brown loved nature. It was a subject he knew thoroughly from his studies and experiences living and working in wilderness areas. At the age of seventeen, Haig-Brown emigrated from England to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked as a professional hunter, logger, trapper, and guide. In 1934 he settled at Campbell River, British Columbia and divided his time between hunting, fishing, observation of the land and its animal life, and writing. The nearly twenty-five works of fiction and nonfiction that Haig-Brown has written reflect his appreciation of the beauty of his adopted country. His nonfiction, particularly those works on angling, rivers, and fish, are considered his greatest achievements.

As a writer, Haig-Brown sought to share some of the great pleasures he had experienced in years of fishing, hunting, and observing wildlife. He was unquestionably successful; his A River Never Sleeps and Return to the River are classics of naturalist literature, unusual in their poetic descriptions. Like many of his other books, these describe nature with drama and authenticity and recreate the feelings and thoughts evoked by Haig-Brown's close contact with its beauty. While full of practical instruction and information for outdoorsmen, Haig-Brown's nonfiction is often read for its literate and inspired accounts of the calm and comfort to be found in nature.

Most of Haig-Brown's fictional heroes reflect his love and respect for the land. Themes of friendship, courage, trust, growth, integrity, and strength are explored against a wilderness setting. Timber, an acclaimed adult novel, is the story of the friendship of two young men who face great physical danger each day in their work as loggers. Considered sensitive and realistic, it is also a portrait of men reacting to the elemental beauties and dangers of their environment in the face of challenge and change. Haig-Brown's popular young adult novels Starbuck Valley Winter and Saltwater Summer pursue similar themes.

Haig-Brown sought to challenge his readers as well as to entertain them. His excellent critical reception is an indication that he was successful on both counts. He is acclaimed for the poetic dimension to naturalist writing and his well-constructed prose. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72, and Something About the Author, Vol. 12.)

The Times Literary Supplement

[Pool and Rapid: The Story of a River] is a nature-story of a decidedly original kind. By making a British Columbian river the central object of his narrative, Mr. Haig-Brown has ingeniously avoided one of the principal difficulties with which authors of this class of work have to contend. A story written round the life of an animal is almost compelled to falsify Nature to some extent by endowing the creature with a too human mentality. Personality conferred upon an inanimate object, on the other hand, is at once recognized as a harmless literary convention, which leaves the author free to adhere strictly to the truth in dealing with the living accessories to his picture. The story of the Tashish river begins, quite frankly, with a fascinating piece of Indian mythology to account for its creation, and the stream is everywhere treated as a human soul with a markedly feminine temperament…. This treatment, applied to an animal, would amount to an intolerable piece of "nature-faking," but here it is unobjectionable, since it cannot mislead. The life in the water and beside it, of the salmon, the bears, the beavers, the deers and the birds is left to be described with all the accuracy of a keen observer who knows what he is talking about and is under no temptation to distort his facts. Much of the charm of the book is due to such descriptions, though a large element of human interest is also contributed, through the introduction of the first settler...

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The Times Literary Supplement

In his preface to Panther … Mr. Haig-Brown anticipates a possible criticism: "this story of a panther is too bloody, there is too much killing and cruelty in it." He answers that a panther is not "cruel": it kills for food or from sexual jealousy, because so to kill is the law of its being. And Mr. Haig-Brown's Ki-Yu is entirely a panther, not at all a four-legged philosopher. A more reasonable criticism is that the life story of an animal, when the author sternly resists the temptation to make the animal think and speak in human terms, is scarcely sufficient to fill a book. And a story written quite objectively can never be so enthralling as one which has in it a strong subjective element.

Perhaps, from the story-teller's point of view, it would have been wiser to establish a more definite human background. But the book undoubtedly has its fascination: it is a genuine piece of nature study based on long and accurate observation of the Vancouver Island panther (or cougar) and of its habits….

Story-telling apart, Mr. Haig-Brown gives his readers much curious and interesting information about panthers' ways.

"Shorter Notices: 'Panther'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1934; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1709, November 15, 1934, p. 794.

Ellen Lewis Buell

["Ki-Yu: A Story of Panthers," published in Britain as "Panther,"] is a superbly written biography …; but it is also a story of the wild life of the northern forests told with the veracity of a man who has known this life for a long time; and who can translate the majesty as well as the cruelty of the eternal struggle for existence among animals into vivid, swinging prose….

It is [the] long-drawn-out duel between man and beast which is the backbone of the narrative, and it is a fitting conclusion that neither wins….

The conviction of the story is augumented by the author's objective treatment of his subject. With the woodsman's realism he wastes little space in conjecture on animal thought, but relies on his knowledge of habit and instinct to portray the panthers hunting, killing, playing or roaming in that apparently aimless wandering which has such sound instinct to guide it. The book is, unfortunately, too long. It would have been more effective in condensed form, as much of the detail is repetitious, adding little to the original concept of the tale, so that the attention slackens at intervals. Nevertheless, it is, on the whole, a fine and vigorous story, which should appeal equally to sportsmen and older young people.

Ellen Lewis Buell, "The New Books for Boys and Girls: 'Ki-Yu: A Story of Panthers'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1935 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1935, p. 10.

J. R. de la TORRE BUENO, JR.

There have been men before now who wrote of the Pacific salmon, especially of the chinooks and their amazing cycle of life…. R. L. Haig-Brown tells it again in "Return to the River"; and to this reviewer's knowledge not one of his predecessors has brought to the telling such a knowledge of the subject, so broad a vision, so fine a feeling for the mountains and waters of the Pacific Northwest, or prose of such magnificent simplicity and beauty…. [His] is a book practically perfect. If Henry Williamson's English counterpart, "Salar the Salmon," found its readers by thousands, Mr. Haig-Brown's audience should be counted by tens of thousands. No sportsman, no nature lover, no conservationist, no person sensitive to the grandeur and sweep of the process of living, can read this book without being profoundly moved.

It is, quite simply, the story of the life of one particular fish, a female chinook, whom the author identifies by naming her Spring….

An ordinary enough story, to be sure….

Yet, as Mr. Haig-Brown tells it, Spring's story is neither simple nor ordinary. There is not a single aspect of the fish's life with which he does not deal thoroughly, giving you all the details of how Spring feeds and grows and moves at each stage of her development, of the dangers she meets and how she is saved from them through a combination of luck and hair-trigger instinct; giving you a fine picture of the work...

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Raymond R. Camp

There is gallantry in sacrifice for an ideal. When such sacrifice is made by a reasoning human we term it heroism, but when performed by an unreasoning fish we pass it off lightly under the heading of instinct.

No one who reads Roderick L. Haig-Brown's "Return to the River" will deny the gallantry of the Chinook salmon….

The book is much more than the mere tale of a salmon, for Mr. Haig-Brown has not neglected the dramatic values or the human equation. The contents are as far removed from scientific text as the Chinook is from the bullhead. It is enhanced by the author's ability to bring out what might well be termed the romance of the commonplace.

So pleasantly...

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Joseph Henry Jackson

To say that ["Timber"] is never dull is the sheerest understatement. "Timber" is as exciting as a shrewdly carpentered play. But it is much more, too. Here, set in a natural frame of overwhelming beauty, is a tale of natural men and how they react to natural stresses and strains. Mr. Haig-Brown doesn't go all Rousseau about what he is doing, no. He simply takes pains to discover the thoughts and emotions, the mechanics, so to put it, of the direct, simple man who works not merely with his hands but with all of himself, including his imagination. Having found out something of what makes such men tick, he lets them work out their own stories in a novel in which the physical setting of the forests is important to the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Margaret Wallace

In part "Timber" is the simple, virile, roughly tender story of the friendship between … two young loggers—a friendship which survives, though narrowly, the strain of their attraction to the same girl … There is something not much short of Homeric in this chronicle of their hard and dangerous and zestful lives.

But beyond this, "Timber" will be remembered as a remarkable study of the logging industry, set down in full and loving detail as only a logger could have done it. One observes in this connection—and not by any means for the first time—how great an advantage it is to a novelist to know what he is talking about, and to know it from honest first-hand experience….


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J. R. de la TORRE BUENO, JR.

["A River Never Sleeps" is] a work of such excellence, such penetration and sureness and knowledge coupled with wisdom, that it stands very near the head of its class. Prediction may be unsafe, but it seems to me we are here dealing with a true classic, a book which will be read, and pondered over, and read again by generations of anglers to come, and always with appreciation and pleasure.

Like many books of substance, "A River Never Sleeps" does not fit easily into any clearly defined category. It is not a book of practical instruction, though it contains much fishing lore. It is not a series of entertaining and exciting fishing stories, though many of the incidents Mr. Haig-Brown treats have these...

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Ed Zern

There is something in angling which provokes a host of its partisans and practitioners to write about it. Most of them write very badly indeed, with enthusiasm running lengths ahead of talent. Only rarely does marked literary skill combine with sound knowledge and rich experience to produce a really good angling book, but Roderick Haig-Brown's "A River Never Sleeps" is just that.

The author writes for his fellow-fishermen, and assumes the reader's sympathy for his piscatory approach to rivers, but there is much in this book to captivate those whose interest in nature is more sedentary. The spectacle of salmon migration, for example, loses none of its eternal and elemental excitement when seen through...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

J. R. T. Bueno, Jr.

["The Western Angler: An Account of Pacific Salmon and Western Trout in British Columbia"] is one of the few authentic classics of North American angling literature….

Make no mistake, this is an outstanding book, worth the careful reading and prayerful consideration of every sportsman and conservationist—yes, and legislator too….

Those chapters which deal with fishing techniques and methods are first-rate of their kind—succinct, informed, thoughtful and full of suggestion for the prospective angler in western waters, or indeed anywhere else. Other chapters cover the lives of these Northwestern fishes—their spawning, growth, feeding habits, and complex migratory patterns....

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Ann Schakne

Mr. Haig-Brown has written a moving and exciting novel about the majestic vastness of the Pacific Northwest and a man whose spirit was wholly given to it….

["On the Highest Hill"] is written with resilience and strength. Mr. Haig-Brown knows and loves the mountains of Canada about which he writes and the way of a man among them, whose only need and only peace lie in their desert vastness. He details without emphasis, but with force, their wild, intrinsic beauty and the taxing skills required to cope with them. Colin is the contemporary Canadian equivalent of the mountain men whom A. B. Guthrie described so well in "The Big Sky." Like Boone Caudill he comprehends no satisfaction except in nature,...

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Bradford Smith

Colin Ensley [in On the Highest Hill] grew up in Canada's western lumbering country, hated conflict of any kind, was shy, withdrawn, and preferred the solitude of the mountains and forests to being with people. His teacher, young Mildred Hanson, thought him destined for greatness…. But all her encouragements and all Colin's travels including a trip to Europe made possible by the war failed to develop the greatness she had sensed. Colin remains shy and withdrawn, and when his beloved solitudes are destroyed by logging, he is destroyed too.

A few of the book's other folk—particularly Colin's father—come clearly into focus, but not enough to put springiness into a tale that Colin's own...

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Haydn Pearson

By the time he has turned a dozen pages in this very pleasant and informative book ["Fisherman's Spring"], the reader appreciates that Roderick Haig-Brown is much more than an expert fisherman. This is a book for everyone who delights in the out-of-doors. If one happens to enjoy fishing, so much the better….

"Fisherman's Spring" is rich in trout lore and fishing secrets. It is the distilled wisdom of a man who has learned to extract the essence of outdoor experiences. Mr. Haig-Brown knows the secrets of fishing and gladly shares them. Some of the chapters are minor classics: Fishermen and Forestry, Recognizing Birds, A Boy and A Fish Pole, Northward Geese and Family Sortie among others….


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Thirty-three individual pieces make up ["Fisherman's Spring"], and every one of them is worth the full attention of any angler, conservationist, nature-lover, or appreciator of supple, clean writing. We find here what we have come to expect of Mr. Haig-Brown—great knowledge of angling, and of fishes; a common-sense approach to the "mysteries" of the sport; wise opinions modestly held; a deep realization of the importance of fishing to the fisherman himself, and to the whole people; and a sheaf of good stories out of his own broad experience, all built around fishing, but not all concerned with fish.

There are excellent pieces on wading, and on handling boats in fast water—how-to-do-it articles,...

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Virginia Kirkus' Bookshop Service

An invitation to fish the lakes and rivers of Chile and Argentina was a dream any fisherman would seize, and [in Fisherman's Winter] Haig-Brown converts the opportunity into a record that combines enchanting travel reading with a book on fishing that even a non-fisherman can enjoy. One gets a feel of the country and the people, particularly Chile…. [The] book is focussed on the fishing, and the factual data—which those who would follow in his footsteps need to know—is painlessly introduced along with personal experience…. While he is tactful in expressing his preference, one senses that Argentina, while it provided some superb fishing experiences, did not capture his heart as did Chile. An appendix...

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Haydn S. Pearson

["Fisherman's Winter"] is the account of a winter's fishing in Chile and Argentina and so far as I know there is no book like it. I recommend "Fisherman's Winter" without reservation to fishermen and to all readers who are interested in our neighbor countries to the south. The author does much more than describe fishing spots, equipment, hotels and travel conditions. He discusses the people, living conditions and the countryside. He evaluates social, cultural and economic conditions honestly and kindly….

Mr. Haig-Brown is a true fisherman. He takes his big fish with commendable modesty and he is patiently philosophical when the big one gets away. He knows that fishing per se is just one part of the...

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Bill Katz

["Fisherman's Summer"] is the finest book of its kind to be published in many years. Fishermen, particularly devotees of the fly rod, recognize Haig-Brown as a 20th-century [Izaak] Walton—but this work proves he is more than a great authority on angling. His rich talk, quiet humor, and deep contentment, augmented by a fine literary style, deserve wider appreciation. The general reader will discover here one of the best analyses of how industry, tourism and dams change natural beauty; a chapter on Northwest explorers (many starved for lack of fishing knowledge) and much Indian lore. Practical tips on flies, rods and line for summer steelhead, cutthroats and salmon will drive any fisherman to the nearest stream. (pp....

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Haydn S. Pearson

We land-locked lubbers should be forgiven our envious twinges when we read Roderick Haig-Brown's most recent book on fishing. As a nature writer, he is authentic; as a fisherman, he rates among the world's most capable. As a writer, his prose is lean, descriptive and always interesting. "Fisherman's Summer" will become a minor classic in its special field.

Best of all, from an ordinary fisherman's viewpoint, Roderick Haig-Brown has the faculty of talking man to man. He knows why fishing appeals to so many…. He has the sense of humor that a fisherman needs, for, indeed, a fisherman without it is a pitiful object….

There is both a main course and dessert in "Fisherman's Summer."...

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The Junior Bookshelf

[Captain of the Discovery is] a Canadian book [about] Captain George Vancouver, who discovered the coast which bears his name. It seems hard to say that this makes rather dull reading. It is certainly not the matter that is at fault, but there is some lack of spark in the telling. It may be because we never get any real picture of Vancouver himself. All the first chapters are about Captain Cook, with whom Vancouver sailed, and about Cook's voyages and tragic end. We really do not learn anything about Vancouver, who sailed as an Officer Cadet at the age of fifteen, and so far as he is concerned we are not particularly interested when he finally gets command of the "Discovery." This should be a great story and...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

The Junior Bookshelf

There is a wider tendency nowadays to take the romance out of more than one field of old-fashioned adventure. [In The Whale People] the author takes the old idea of fun and games among the Red Indians and transforms tradition into reality without gilding the pill in any way. Life for the Indian Peoples of the Northern Pacific coast appears as a hard business in which most of the pleasure comes from winning a living, an existence even, from the nature around them. The chief delight and ambition of Atlin, chief elect of the Hotsath tribe, is the killing, and capture of whales, and the way to success is hard and wearisome, spiritually as well as physically. One never feels really warm while reading this new book...

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Ruth Osler

In the beginning of Silver, his biography of an Atlantic salmon, Roderick Haig-Brown says of the Good Fisherman, "He loved salmon as some men love their wives or their books, and his whole heart was bound up in the delight of gaining knowledge of them." He might as well have been speaking of his own love of nature and the preoccupation with wild life that he has built into a literature on fishing and fishermen, life in the wilderness and wild animals. His books show by inference and direct telling the results of a long, deliberate and intelligent observation of the natural world and a deep respect for its laws and customs. Nor is this just a matter of contemplative enjoyment. He finds in the ways of wild life...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Callie Israel

Appearing as it did when the Canadian adventure story for boys was suffering birth-pangs [Saltwater Summer] was greeted enthusiastically by children and librarians….

A re-reading brought a mixed reaction. The author's familiarity with the locale and his knowledge of fishing and fishermen are evident. The action is fast-paced and dramatic. However, the boys seem somewhat naive by to-day's standards. The use of such interjections as "gee" and "heck" somewhat dates the book. Some of the characters seem stereotyped and the ending is predictable. Teen-agers used to books that "tell it like it is" may find this too unreal.

Callie Israel, "'Saltwater...

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Adele M. Fasick

Although [Captain of the Discovery: The Story of Captain George Vancouver] is a competent, straightforward biography which does not require significant revision, it is unfortunate that a few inexcusably patronising remarks about native peoples were not eliminated [in the revised edition]. To write as Haig-Brown does …, "Nearly all the natives they dealt with were natural—and highly skilful—thieves until checked," is to accept 18th century European standards without making allowance for cultural differences. And to say that a group of Indians "behaved well" because they were peaceful and traded willingly … is to imply that Indian behaviour can be judged by its convenience for Europeans.


(The entire section is 189 words.)

Sheila Egoff

One of the few examples in the series of the wholly unembellished biography is Roderick L. Haig-Brown's Captain of the Discovery: The Story of Captain George Vancouver (1956). Vancouver's voyages took him into the huts of the Hawaiian Islanders, the lodges of the West Coast Indians, and the galleys of Spanish men-of-war, and Haig-Brown takes full advantage of his opportunities for satisfying the child's natural interest in exotic settings, but never at the cost of distorting his subject. Vancouver was no swashbuckling explorer but a disciplined, skilled, conscientious navigator. Haig-Brown dares to show him as one, confident that solid achievement, however unspectacular in the accomplishment, is a theme that...

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W. J. Keith

Although I would not wish to imply that Haig-Brown is anything but Canadian in his mature writings, it is important to lay some emphasis on his connections with the essentially English rural tradition….

One gets the impression when reading through Haig-Brown's work that he has been particularly conscious of a responsibility to justify his change of allegiance by a thorough mastery of all the historical, zoological and sociological aspects of the province in which he lives. (p. 9)

The image of exploration and discovery may be seen as a unifying thread that links his numerous writings. In his historical books for schoolchildren—Captain of the Discovery (1956), The...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)

Mary Kirton

It is difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly make the story of an Atlantic salmon as exciting and dramatic as the adventures of the great white shark so much in the news these days. Yet Roderick Haig-Brown in his [Silver: The Life of an Atlantic Salmon] does just that…. All the facts are presented with commendable accuracy and specificity….

Haig-Brown has obviously observed the salmon in great detail, but Silver is far from a mere catalogue of facts. Rather, it is an intensely captivating drama of life and survival, brought alive by the author's own delight and interest in the salmon's saga. No text on the subject could offer such delightful vignettes as the month old fry...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Alec Lucas

[There] is no question that Haig-Brown aimed to make his animal biographies "authentic," to use his own term. He wished to be true to the facts and spirit of the natural world and to instill some appreciation of it in his readers. In this aim, his adult and children's books are one. He wanted "all people to see and understand more because there is both pleasure and fulfillment in seeing and understanding lives about them, whether they are the lives of trees and plants, or lives of animals or lives of fish." In such seeing and understanding lay, he believed, "the only hope of preserving the natural world." These aims motivated all Haig-Brown's animal stories, but Silver and Return to the River much more...

(The entire section is 4378 words.)

Janet Arnett

[Roderick Haig-Brown left] a considerable quantity of unpublished short fiction and essays. Using this material, his daughter Valerie has planned a three-volume compilation, of which Woods and River Tales is the first….

His empathy with the individualistic people who struggled in [the rugged environment of British Columbia] and his well-honed observational skills make these stories memorable.

Woods and River Tales contains 19 stories, many of them thought to be based on true experiences. All but four are published here for the first time.

The subjects Haig-Brown picked for his tales are typically wild and woolly west themes…. But far from being...

(The entire section is 185 words.)