When I told my friend and former VCFA colleague Sarah Ellis that I was moving to Victoria, she gave me a copy of The Book of Small by Emily Carr. In her introduction to this 2004 edition (the book was first published in 1942) Sarah writes:
One of Carr’s greatest accomplishments in The Book of Small lies in her ability to express the visceral and transcendent joy of a small child, “boiling over like the jam kettle.”
Of the city itself, Emily Carr wrote:
Victoria stood like a gawky girl, waiting, waiting to be a grown-up city.
I enjoyed my first reading of the book, its droll commentary and the clever device by which the writer fictionalizes her own life. But it has taken me some time to read it as a story map of a place I am learning to call home.
Now the landscape is starting to glimmer through for me. The nine o’clock gun at Esquimalt. Fort Street and James’ Bay and Dallas Road. They’re all still here but now that I know them a little better I can see glimpses of their past as well. Childhood perspectives on people and events give the book its sense of a deeply felt yet impulsive reaction to the world.
The house was the wide, sitting sort. Vines and creepers tied it down to the ground.
Passages like that allow The Book of Small to rise above its occasionally archaic viewpoint. A few chapters read awkwardly through a 21st century lens—“green little Chinese boys for servants…” Shuffling Chinamen and squatting Indians. The elusive Oriental. The sort of thing gets under my skin but I have learned to set it aside when I’m reading across the borders of time.
Her overall perceptions remain remarkably astute—now I see what she means by that little aside on the gawky city. A city with a small-town feel to it, still torn between past and present, and still, perhaps, waiting to be grown-up.