Do you ever wonder why some books become classics, on every list, discussed on every social platform, in every classroom, while others, ones you read with such admiration and joy, are known to so few? I am thinking of Sheila Watson’s first novella, but published long after A Double Hook, after her death, when attentions were directed to books with other qualities, writers with other reputations. I’m thinking of Deep Hollow Creek. We’ve been reading it during the past few weeks, mostly in 8 page increments, after dinner, and tonight we finished. It’s brief: 111 pages in this New Canadian Library edition. Reading aloud attunes the ear to certain constructions, certain attentions. I’ve read this novella perhaps 4 times. I would say it’s one of my favourite books. Set in Dog Creek, in B.C.’s Cariboo region, in the mid-1930s, it immerses the reader in both the sere landscape of that area, the dry hills, ranches, dens of coyotes, wild stallions fighting in the grasslands, roads almost impassable in winter, and also in the writing of 17th c. polymath Thomas Browne. A dog named Juno makes a nest for herself and her new puppies under an abandoned log pig-pen. A vain English-born wife teaches her husband the hesitation waltz while blue grouse court, “the hen dancing under a dock leaf while the cock drummed his desire.” You could read this book alongside any modernist novel of the same period (Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes) and I don’t believe you’d be disappointed. You’d be surprised. You’d find yourself pausing and wondering, reminding yourself this was a remote community in B.C. when a literary work set in its pleats and folds was unexpected.
The clock ticked in the House, marking the hours, the days, the years. Down in the book went the days. Over the counter Mockett handed the flour and the shirts. The seasons came and went—sometimes too soon, sometimes too late. Man slipped into the sun’s embrace and out of it and lit coal-oil lamps to cheat the darkness.
What I hadn’t realized, reading it for the first time or the third, was how Sheila Watson has so beautifully delineated the two roles she took when she went to teach at Dog Creek in 1934. Stella is the schoolteacher, finding a way to make a life for herself in a cabin near the school, making friends with a couple who live in a house some distance from the community; and her friend, who joins her from the coast after Christmas, is the observer.
You should become a contemporary Boswell, Stella remarked. You have enough opportunity to. You could turn your observation to account.
I don’t know that I won’t, said Miriam.
I never noticed before, I said to John as we were reading, that of course they are both of them Sheila Watson becoming a writer.
When Miriam finally went to bed in the next room Stella would sit listening to the logs crack with the frost, listening to the brittle scraping of the frozen bush branches against the logs outside. Once she heard a child crying in the gulch out which the old Hudson’s Bay trail went over the hill. She thought it was a child lost and crying in the cold and she went to the door and stood until her eye-lashes froze against her face as she remembered that there were no children to cry. Only Lilac had children; the older ones were in the Mission School at the Rock and the bay would be safe in bed. Stella noticed the sky. It pressed down on the shoulders of the hills like an immense steel-blue mirror.
When the mirror is set up in the foyer, she thought…Then she shut the door quickly as if dropping a curtain between the mirror and the reflected face.
From the gulch came the crying; but more immediately in her consciousness was the scratching of the bushes against the logs.
So we finished reading and closed the book, one of us leaving the room and one of us sitting in the chair by the window, realizing how the sentences had entered, well, my nervous system (because of course it was me in the chair, caught in the spell of that frost and the child’s cry and the grouse courting in the dock leaves), wishing I had the means to alert the reading world to the magic of this beautiful book.