What's Being Said



Lynne Van Luven
Victoria Times Colonist
Sunday, May 28, 2006

"And the winner is . . . Rebecca Godfrey for Under the Bridge!"



Well, OK, it didn't happen quite the way it does at the Academy Awards. We were in Vancouver for one thing, and it was noon for another. Nevertheless, suspense ran high Friday as the presentation luncheon for the British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction got underway in the Oceanview Suite at the Pan Pacific Hotel.

After all, there is only one national book prize originating in B.C. The award is also cited as one of the largest available to non-fiction writers in Canada, surpassing the Governor General's award by $10,000. Godfrey's exhaustively researched book focuses upon the murder of 14-year-old Reena Virk and the teenage culture out of which that horrific event developed. Godfrey, whose first book, the novel Torn Skirt, is also set in Victoria, accepted the award announcing she was "very nervous" and disavowing her initial experience as a journalist.

"When I told people I was writing a book about the Virk case," she said, "their reaction changed. It wasn't because of me; it was because the idea of a book carries such weight." She also thanked her parents (her father Dave Godfrey is the former Chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria) and her brother for being supportive when she lost courage about her project.

Aside from the three judges - Denise Chong, Max Wyman and Hal Wake - and perhaps an insider or two from the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, none of us knew which author would take home the $25,000 prize. The first such non-fiction award was made
in May 2005; it went to Saanichton poet Patrick Lane for his sterling memoir, There Is A Season, a book that has since been published in the United States and continues to win critical acclaim. This year's shortlist consisted of three books in addition to Godfrey's Under the Bridge ( published by HarperCollins): Dead Man in Paradise by J.B. MacKinnon (Douglas & McIntyre); The Boys by John Terpstra (Gaspereau Press) and The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant (Knopf Canada).

All are worthy examples of creative non-fiction; all combine extensive research with an imaginative narrative style. All are based on true events, and each one jostles readers to think about the real world. In mid-April, Premier Gordon Campbell announced the four finalists for the award in a press release, saying "Canadian non-fiction captures the drama of our history, and provokes discussion of ideas that will shape our future." So, yes, this is an important cultural occasion - especially since three of the four nominees are young writers at the start of their careers. I note a heartening diversity amongst the publishers, too. Two were big houses, but MacKinnon's publisher is a long-established name in the B.C. book world with a growing national and international profile, and Terpstra's publisher is a small Atlantic press making a name for itself for its books' high design standards.

Of the four authors being feted at the luncheon, two - Vaillant and MacKinnon - live in Vancouver. Vancouver Island readers will remember MacKinnon from his days as editor at Monday Magazine, where he is still warmly remembered. And Godfrey spent part of her youth in Victoria, which probably explains her fascination with the circumstances surrounding Virk's murder.

Terpstra, who has published seven books of poetry and has been shortlisted for a GG for one of them, lives in Hamilton, Ont. And two of the four authors found their stories in B.C.-based events. As the lunch progressed, I wondered whether this year's presentation would
make more noticeable national waves than last year's did. In 2005, I was so ticked off by the obliviousness of a particular paper that purports to be a national vehicle that I wrote a letter to the editor asking why a national book prize had not been better covered outside of B.C. Not only did no additional coverage ensue, the paper also declined to publish my letter. So much for my success as an activist! (It's also true that I was one of the non-fiction judges last year, so perhaps my squawking was viewed as biased. This year, I attended the awards luncheon out of professional interest - and to fill in for University of Victoria ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, who could not be on hand to introduce Vaillant. Fortunately, I'd read The Golden Spruce and admired it, so introducing the author was a genuine pleasure.)

Skeptics might claim that when the B.C. government endowed the British Columbia Achievement Foundation in 2003 "to celebrate excellence and achievement," it was simply trying to increase the "cultural capital" of the provincial Liberals and thus ensure election support from a recalcitrant sector of the population.

Maybe so, but as James MacKinnon said at the lunch, only a brave politician establishes "an award that stands behind the creative handling of the truth."

As I did last year, I came away from the event feeling proud of the writers working in this province and moved by the stories coming out of this place. And it seemed to me that - even though publishing is a sharp-edged business - those working in it believe that B.C. is a site of important cultural creation, that "there is a here here."


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British Columbia Achievement Foundation
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