“As soon as I read George Godwin’s long-neglected novel, The Eternal Forest, I had an extraordinary sense of deja vu. I had “been there before,” even if the times and places were different… What interests us most in this novel are the portraits of human beings struggling and sometimes by sheer willfulness succeeding against both the villainies of corrupt men and the ever-returning, ever encroaching power of the bush.”
(George Woodcock, Preface to The Eternal Forest)
“Godwin writes with (…) an appreciation of the enduring spiritual value of woods and wilderness. (…) gives a very good sociological understanding of (early BC).”
(Prof. Brian Elliott in BC Studies. Summer, 1996)
“The Eternal Forest can best be described as ‘The Great Fraser Valley Novel.’ It realistically depicts the erosion of rural, community-based life in the Valley by Vancouver-based capitalism. (…) Rich in empathy and insights.”
(“Vancouver and Its Writers,” by Alan Twigg)
“Should force British Columbians to adjust their thinking about the past.”
(BC Historical News)
“What a surprise this novel is! It is written with white-hot outrage at hypocrisy and double-dealing.”
(BC Bookworld, summer, 1995)
The following review by Professor Brian Elliott (Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, U. of British Columbia) appeared in “BC Studies” (summer, 1996).
This new edition of a book which was published originally by Appletons of New York in 1929, provides a rare glimpse into life in the Lower Fraser Valley immediately prior to the First World War. It is, in fact, much more than a reissued novel. Robert Thomson, an academic-turned-publisher, and the nephew of George Godwin, has added greatly to the value of the original text by providing extracts from the author’s journal, recent and period photographs, and a series of notes. Passages from Godwin’s journal enable us to understand more fully the significance of particular sections of the text–connecting the voices of his characters to his own political views, or the emotions of the central figure in the novel to the intimate details of his own personal life. Taken together, the journal extracts and the notes offer the reader an unusual degree of assurance that The Eternal Forest can be appreciated not simply for its aesthetic qualities but also as a source of historical understanding.
Godwin and his wife, Dorothy, exchanged the comfort of their middle-class milieu in England for the romance of the pioneer life. In 1912 they arrived in the Fraser Valley and sank their 500 pounds sterling into a house and a few acres of bush in Whonnock (Ferguson’s Landing in the novel). The Eternal Forest describes the society they encountered. There are the resourceful Olsens–farmers, fishers, miners, and carpenters–who have all the skills to endure and prosper in the wilderness, and the patient, humble Swede, Johansson, who sweats and suffers but who eventually owns a fine farm and the first Ford in the district. Old Man Dunn, the self-educated Yorkshireman, is the local sage whose socialist and cooperative views help shape the collective critique of Vancouver realtors, provincial politicians, and all kinds of promoters and boosters whose schemes bring ruin to the gullible or desperate. There is the voluptuous Mrs. Armstrong, who takes in loggers and “serve[s] her boarders’ fare out with the sauce of sex” (60), and whose house resounds with disorderly delights throughout the winter months. The Church of England vicar, Mr. Corley, disapproves of Mrs. Armstrong, but then he despises most of the citizens of Ferguson’s Landing, for few accord him any respect and fewer still attend his services. He longs for the certainty, hierarchy, and decorum that he left. There is Blanchard, the storekeeper dispensing provisions and gossip and mail, playing postmaster, thanks to Bob England, an old-timer and political broker who has secured Blanchard’s appointment through his connections in the provincial capital. Such little acts of patronage tie hamlets like the Landing to the webs of influence being woven in the cities. And on the margins of this society are others, identified as Red Men, Orientals, Japs, and Hindus, viewed by the settlers with condescension, but also with fear.
Enter a couple referred to simply as the ‘Newcomers’ whose experiences and responses are essentially those of George and Dorothy Godwin (…)
There is much to enjoy and admire in this work. Godwin writes lyrically about the landscape and especially about the forest, mixing the townsman’s newly-discovered joy in physical labour and naive desire to discipline and tame the bush with an appreciation of the immense resilience of nature and the enduring spiritual value of woods and wilderness. The Eternal Forest tells of struggle and failure, despair and defeat, but it also records moments of profound self-discovery. Newcomer was unsure what he was seeking when he left England. Specifying what he was escaping was easy enough–the stultifying rigidities of a class society–but what was he looking for and what did he find? In the wilderness, for the first time, he is able to think clearly about life. Here it is reduced to stark simplicity and that which is truly important becomes plain. Towards the end of the book though, there is a more profound answer: Newcomer experiences an epiphany.
Godwin’s novel documents an individual’s failure and moments of revelation, but it also records collective experience, and through it we can see how there emerged in this province different economies and different cultures–the metropolitan and the rural–and how their opposed interests became the bases for a political order that survived until very recently. Exhausted by the effort of clearing the land, unable to produce enough from their small enterprises to survive, some settlers were easy targets for the promoters of get-rich-quick schemes–buying land where a railroad might stop, purchasing shares in never-to-be-realized oil fields in the valley. They and others were often forced to sell the plots in which they had invested so much, and when they did, they found targets for their frustration–the Chinese, who (they claimed) had taken over Lulu Island and now dominated the market for produce, or the Japanese, who were buying up the farms. Old Man Dunn explained: “It’s the Jap’s purpose to get this Province by peaceful penetration” (p. 92).
In this book we begin to appreciate how the Fraser Valley became such a fertile place for conservative populism and even for outright racism. Godwin puts the observations about the Japanese into the mouth of his least conservative character. Old Dunn is not trying to incite racial antipathy. But the same cannot be said for articles that appeared in Maclean’s while Godwin (back in England) was polishing the manuscript. On 15 October 1921, in the first of two articles, “Will Canada Go Yellow?” we find statistics for the very area in which Ferguson’s Landing (Whonnock) lies, charting the growth of Japanese ownership and reporting, without challenge, the popular theory that this was part of an invasion being orchestrated from Tokyo.
But this is not a political novel. It is fiction woven from personal experience containing acute and verifiable observation of an emerging society. It reflects, naturally, many views that are today regarded as outmoded, a few even reprehensible. The reader can have fun exploring Godwin’s own sympathies not only by inferring them from the text, but also by checking them against the journal extracts. Taken as a whole, this book gives us a very good sociological understanding of the early struggles of the settlers, the colonial culture they inhabited, and the social relations that nurtured their suspicion of the city, corporate capitalism, and distant government.
Robert Thomson is to be congratulated for republishing this book. It deserves a broad readership.
University of British Columbia
Excerpts from a review by Dr. Claire Campbell (Dept. of History, U. of Alberta) for “National History” (August, 2000).
The descriptive passages of the surrounding forest are beautifully written, sensual and evocative. We see it, through the Newcomer’s eyes, in all seasons and moods. The alluring shimmer of summer; the drumming of rain in the bush; the feel of a damp forest floor. It is a world so much more permanent and meaningful than our own, with the power of creation, beauty, and destruction. It is here that Godwin’s spiritual self finds genuine succor, for the forest ‘got hold of you and made you think, it gave you your place in the universe, taught you the significance and the insignificance of man; it whispered of God’ (207) Such reflections, which constitute the most moving passages of the novel, are even more striking to the modern reader aware that such places are rapidly vanishing. (…)
(The roller coaster of boom-and-bust in British Columbia’s economy sounds oddly familiar–and rather disconcerting–after recent upheavals in global markets). The settlers are caught between two worlds, unable to control their destinies: they participate in a cash economy, but not successfully; the ventures they hope will free them from drudgery only tie them more closely to the land for subsistence. They are victimized by the wily merchants, who venture into the Valley only long enough to exploit this longing for prosperity. Godwin is virulent in his attack on the city and the human society it represents: it is a ‘rot’ (145) which feeds on the weakness of human nature, a world of arrogant pretensions, alienated from the eternal truths of the soil. (…)
This brings us again to the forest interior. Here, at least, the power of nature can offer redemption; here people can experience spiritual growth and intellectual revelation. The forest is the only ‘character’ above reproach. But Godwin’s writing departs from the pantheistic naturalism of the late Romantic age and almost prefigures some of the beliefs of the modern conservationist movement. His Nature does not exist for us alone, to be measured in terms of ‘resources’, economic or spiritual. For the Newcomer it is alternatively uncaring or benevolent, silent or communicative, depending of the receptivity and frame of mind of the one standing before or within it. This is the forest of Emily Carr paintings: rhythmic, animate, a world of secrets and mysteries.
Why is the forest so much more alluring, even now, with the coastal forest a remnant of the stand even in Godwin’s day? Is it evidence of the author’s own heartfelt relationship with the bush through long hours of solitude? Or is it something in the collective Canadian imagination, cultivated or inherent, which embraces portraits of Nature as the universal? Whatever the case, this novel is that rarest of historical sources: disturbingly relevant. Reading ‘The Eternal Forest’ today one is acutely conscious of contemporary battles over the coastal forest, and of natural regions across Canada. Who will not see images of clear-cut old-growth forest in the passage: ‘With each clang of the axe, it seemed to call: “Beware! Oh, forest, man is here; man, the destroyer. Man, who eats your heart away, ravishing your loveliness”’ 956). And who will not wonder if we are able–and worse, willing–to destroy that which is our cultural taproot, and most important of all, a thing of wonder in its own right.
University of Western Ontario, Aug. 2000.