Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown

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Ruth Osler

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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 patterns and attitudes entirely worthy of adaptation to men, so that his books on wild life and men have a certain affinity, and in his masterpiece, The Whale People, the two are fused in a subject particularly sympathetic for the author, particularly compatible with his interests and beliefs.

For the subject matter of his work Haig-Brown has been able to draw often on the varied experiences of his own life. (p. 16)

From his interest in nature and his social interests have emerged six books of creative fiction for young people…. The books have in common the detailed development of a central character and exact and accurate background material. Themes which are the springboards of his adult novels: conservation, the encroachment of urban society on the wilderness appear only slightly, or by inference. He writes in a clear, polished prose which is often eloquent but seldom light or humorous. He is most successful where his plots develop from a natural background. It is frequently true that his peripheral characters and sub plots are below the standard of his central material. (pp. 16-17)

[His first book] is Silver, the biography of an Atlantic salmon from the time of its emergence from an egg until it is caught, a huge and glorious fish of sixty pounds. He interrupts the narrative from time to time to deliver small sermons on the fish and the art of fishing, and as a consequence it is far less intense than his later books. It has also a quality of light and freshness not often found in his work….

Silver is an expression of Haig-Brown's intense delight in fishing. And this is a good deal more than the delight of catching a fish. It is the joy of observing the life cycle of the fish and learning his instincts and habits. This book is a detailed and sensitive reconstruction of the salmon's existence according to the laws of its kind and the exigencies of its natural surroundings. He expresses the honour and the respect of the fisherman for a formidable adversary which is later echoed and enlarged in the Indians' attitude to the whale in The Whale People.

In 1946 Haig-Brown produced another natural biography, Panther, but one of a vitally different style and character. Like Silver this is neither a tale of animal adventure nor an exercise in animal psychology. It is as true and accurate an account of the life cycle of a Vancouver Island panther as the author can state, and as such is a bloody, intense and disturbing tour de force of nature writing….

The book offers a remarkable picture of life in the wilderness. More vivid than the physical descriptions are Haig-Brown's perceptions of the sensory world of the animals. And it is full of memorable scenes of...

(This entire section contains 964 words.)

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wildlife…. (p. 17)

Principally [Starbuck Valley Winter] is a very full study of the development of a hardy, resourceful boy. It is also a satisfying story of action, boys learning and accomplishing. (p. 18)

The plot of [its sequel] Saltwater Summer is moved by a good deal of violent action. In Mounted Police Patrol, the most recent and most socially conscious of his adventure stories, this is also true. Its plot has elements of the stock mystery story: threats, robbery and murder. Basically, however, it is the story of the rehabilitation of a boy from a Toronto slum in a small prairie town. The results of crime both for the criminal and his victim are brought home to him through contact with the small community and he develops positive interests in the surrounding countryside. His change of outlook is influenced by a group of villains whose blackness of character almost puts them in the realm of fantasy.

It is a long stride from these books to the Whale People, the story of a young Indian chief's search for the whale spirit, his tumanos…. Haig-Brown has found in this material a theme to capture his imagination and fuse his interests, and he has produced a book noble in style and conception. (pp. 18-19)

The story is of the son of a great whaling chief who, when his father is killed must find his tumanos and lead his tribe. His training, physical and spiritual, his gradual maturing are told with a great economy of language more formal and rhythmic than Haig-Brown has used before. But then this is a book concerned with the spirit and has a theme that is at once more inspiring and more driving than those of his earlier books. Of all his material it is the most completely imagined work.

All Haig-Brown's books are the result of a thoroughness of thought and approach and a quality of imagination that is both creative and realistic. The strength of his writing is easy to underestimate. It often takes a second reading to grasp the breadth of skill, knowledge and understanding that has gone into them. (p. 19)

Ruth Osler, "Haig-Brown: Fisherman, Nature Lover, Author," in In Review: Canadian Books for Children, Winter, 1967, pp. 16-19.

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