Tara Saracuse displays the cover of "Island Kids" on a computer screen. Photograph by The Martlet. BELOW: Emma Stark as a girl.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 4, 2010
Tara Saracuse remembers history being taught as a dry list of dates and events. Kings and things in seventeen-seventy-something.
Or maybe that was eighteen-eighty-something.
Only in the final years of high school did a couple of exceptional teachers help her realize history told the stories of real people.
“It was hard for me to digest all those names and places and dates,” she said. “All those events were abstractions in my mind.”
Ms. Saracuse, 22, will complete a degree in creative writing at the University of Victorian next month. She is a rare undergraduate to have published her first book before earning a sheepskin.
Written for ages 8 and up, “Island Kids” is history of the most memorable kind — stories about Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands told through the eyes and words of the real-life children who experienced those times.
The book includes 22 narratives, from a Haida creation story to Luna the Whale swimming in the waters at Gold River.
The young writer does not shy from unhappy events, including stories about residential schools and the internment of the Japanese-Canadians during the Second World.
Some of the other events described include the Ladysmith Chocolate Strike of 1947 and the tsunami that washed through the streets of Port Alberni in 1964.
One of the more remarkable tales told is of little Emma Stark, the daughter of former American slaves who moved to Salt Spring Island to avoid the bounty hunters in California. She attended classes in a log schoolhouse where her teacher was John Craven Jones, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio.
The schoolmaster offered his charges instruction in Latin, philosophy and human rights, a rich education that would have been the envy of even some of the wealthiest white citizens in nearby Victoria.
Two black men were later murdered on the Stark farm, mysteries unsolved to this day, so the family fled to a more remote locale.
“The story tries to imagine what it would have been like for her to be in so wild a place, so untamed,” Ms. Saracuse said.
The girl eventually moved to Vancouver Island with her father, Louis, in about 1875, becoming a teacher herself at Cedar, south of Nanaimo. She died in 1890, aged 33.
The Stark’s family tale can be told because her mother, Sylvia, left reminiscences rich in detail about family life.
While the children’s history book is described as creative non-fiction, the author has composed a fictitious conversation among the Stark children. The end of each story includes a section titled “What do we know for sure?” in which the fictive is separated from the historical.
Ms. Saracuse would like readers to imagine themselves as bystanders as the events take place, from watching a young Emily Carr avoid being trampled by cattle to a boy delivering groceries on a bicycle.
“I want them to connect with Vancouver Island as a place. I think we live on an amazing island. Amazing for its culture and its sheer natural beauty.
“What was once a wild, untamed land is now a wonderful dichotomy of civilization and nature. We are so lucky.”
The book assignment came in a most fortuitous manner. Working on a term paper for a university writing class, Ms. Saracuse interviewed the author Linda Goyette and the publisher Ruth Linka. The pair, as it turned out, were looking for a writer for the third in a series of books. The undergraduate was invited to join the project, resulting in the release last month of “Island Kids.” The book got written, but the paper never got finished.
The author describes her good fortune in connecting with the publisher as “planned happenstance.” After graduating, Ms. Saracuse will begin a new job as an assistant to Ms. Linka at Brindle & Glass, a Victoria-based publishing house.
A self-described “seeker of information,” Ms. Saracuse traveled north to Courtenay to interview Norman Leung, through whose eyes the amazing story of Cumberland’s Chinatown is told. Mr. Leung offered a tour of his garden and introduced her to his wife, before offering a spellbinding accounting of life in a Chinatown of which little remains today though it was once said to have rivaled San Francisco’s in size.
Mr. Leung’s father had come to Cumberland to be a miner, though low wages and deplorable safety standards led him to instead take up the long hours of being a green grocer. The family’s vegetables were peddled from a truck with twice-a-week deliveries.
“He told me wild stories about the fan-tan houses and the Chinese medicine stores, the sounds and the smells,” she said.
His tales were not without melancholy. She asked him about playing. He could not remember doing so, as his days were filled with work. Riding a bicycle to run errands was as close as he came to a carefree pastime.
Mr. Leung eventually opened a grocery in nearby Courtenay, complete with a lunch counter with stools. The family store became a well-known landmark until the patriarch retired about three years ago.
The ancient grocer, old enough to be Ms. Saracuse’s great-grandfather, brought history to life.
Tara Saracuse will be reading from “Island Kids” (Brindle & Glass) at 1:15 p.m. on Thursday at the Esquimalt Library.