Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown

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Sheila Egoff

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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 deserves and can hold an audience. (p. 51)

[Haig-Brown is the real heir of Ernest Thompson] Seton in the writing of the realistic animal story…. Completely authentic in its details of salmon life, [Silver: The Life of an Atlantic Salmon] is lightened by an intimate, at times almost lyrical style. Haig-Brown addresses his readers as if he were telling the story in person and is quite explicit when he is 'making things up', such as what Silver might have said or thought. Fishing skills, sportsmanship, and conservation are skilfully woven into a story. It takes a craftsman to make something as narrowly special as salmon interesting to the general reader, but Haig-Brown manages to do it.

Ki-Yu: A Story of Panthers is Seton and [Charles G.D.] Roberts brought to complete realism. Ki-Yu is by no means an attractive character. (Even the most predatory animals of the earlier writers are appealing.) The wilderness is presented in all its starkness and there is little to show 'the kindred of the wild'. Ki-Yu is perhaps more a documentary of wild-animal life than a sympathetic animal biography. Haig-Brown simply prefers to let the facts speak for themselves. The drama of the story appears in the deliberate stalking of Ki-Yu by a professional panther hunter; when his dogs are killed by the panther, the sympathy is with the dogs and the man rather than with the hunted animal. Although man plays no more important a role here than in Seton, we are made to feel much more the depredations of wild animals upon domestic animal life.

Haig-Brown, like Roberts and Seton, also shows the inevitableness of death in the wilderness. (pp. 118-19)

Ki-Yu is over-long and sometimes wearying, particularly in the description of the constant killing and feeding of the wild animals. Even so, all the details in the story are so realistically presented that they have a considerable holding power. Haig-Brown convinces by realism, not by invention. (p. 119)

Basically, Mr Haig-Brown does not care to engage our sympathies for Ki-Yu; he is concerned to present life in the wilderness—in this case Vancouver Island—and in carrying the realistic animal story to its logical conclusion he has perhaps gained in accuracy and restraint, but at the expense of dramatic emotion. (p. 120)

Starbuck Valley Winter (1943) and Saltwater Summer (1948) were obviously inspired by tremendous feeling for particular places—British Columbia's range lands and the seas that wash its coastline. However, there is more than feeling in these books. Haig-Brown has looked at what he describes and so feels with his hero not only a 'sudden pride' in his surroundings but also a 'sense of ownership through knowledge'. He invests his readers with this sense of ownership and can thus impart to them, without ever veering into pedagogy, many unfamiliar activities, like trolling, seining, skinning a buck, making a water-wheel, canoeing up a river, setting traps. He has a Homeric appreciation of the well-done task,...

(This entire section contains 1027 words.)

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the well-made artifact, and an observant eye that is never sentimental. He more than sees: he understands and feels as well. 'He looked at everything, trying to use it and make it his own'—this describes Haig-Brown as well as his hero. Such an intimacy between the hero and what he makes or creates enables Haig-Brown to escape the common pitfall of obtrusive information and explanation…. Haig-Brown is always sure-footed in traversing detail.Starbuck Valley Winter and Saltwater Summer are real stories as [Johannes Rhyss's] Swiss Family Robinson and [Robert Louis Stevenson's] Kidnapped are real.

Haig-Brown's honesty of description is reflected in his plots, which have drama but no impossible deeds. In Starbuck Valley Winter, Don's initial decision to save his friend's life is grandly heroic, but the actual journey he undertakes turns out to be almost devoid of sensational incident. The plots of both books are extremely simple but have implicit moral dimensions. In Starbuck Valley Winter, Don Morgan and his friend spend a winter trapping in the woods; in Saltwater Summer they spend the summer in commercial fishing. Both are basically chancy enterprises and it is the natural hazards, the inherent violence of outdoor life rather than artificial 'adventures', that give the tales their impact. The mistakes made, while adding to the suspense, are those that would plausibly be made by anyone of youth and inexperience.

Don Morgan's personality is as believable as his experiences. Haig-Brown presents him as a rather complex person, by no means as straightforwardly 'nice' as his great friend Tubby Miller. He is more moody, more ambitious, and impulsive enough to break the law on one occasion. His path to heroism is a process of development, not a melodramatic change of heart. Perhaps even more remarkably, Haig-Brown knows how to handle adults. In most Canadian children's books the world of youth is quite divorced from the world of adults. The latter are shadowy figures who are almost nameless: simply the Father, the Mother, the Boss, etc. Almost never do we find grown-ups as vivid and as memorable as [Stevenson's] Alan Breck or Long John Silver. Haig-Brown's adults do not catch the imagination as do Stevenson's great creations, but at least they exist. They have mixed motives, complexity, reality. We understand how they have come to live in isolation on range or coast and what their environment has done to them. (pp. 165-67)

Sheila Egoff, in her The Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English (© Oxford University Press, Canadian Branch, 1975; reprinted by permission), second edition, Oxford University Press, Canadian Branch, 1975, 287 p.


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