Gibsons author Marion McKinnon Crook is the recipient of a Lieutenant-Governor’s Historical Writing prize, a distinction announced at the annual Awards Gala of the BC Historical Federation on June 4.
Crook’s best-selling book Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin was released in 2021 by Heritage House Publishing. The memoir chronicles Crook’s tenure as a public health nurse during the 1960s, following her university studies in science and a nursing degree program.
Always Pack a Candle was selected as the recipient of the Community History Award, one of several accolades meted out by the Historical Federation to B.C. books published last year.
Crook is the author of more than 15 titles. Her books include adult fiction, sociological studies, and stories for young readers. Always a Pack a Candle is her first memoir.
For Crook, who grew up in the Fraser Valley, her arrival by bus in Williams Lake was accompanied by the ricochet of culture shock. The geographic vastness of her assigned nursing area—the rolling ranchlands and scrubby hills east of the city—was intimidating, but did not dampen her resolve.
“Perhaps I’d read too much Zane Grey,” she recollects in the book. “Too late for second thoughts now; I was committed. Whatever was coming my way, I was not going to return home where my mother would immediately find a job for me, a safe and boring job, close by. I would manage.”
Crook has the ability to recollect and reconstruct verbatim dialogue. She depicts Cariboo characters as much by their vernacular (and occasional comic mispronunciations) as through her trenchant descriptions.
“I was thinking about one of the people I knew one day,” Crook said in an interview with Coast Reporter, “and I thought: I met so many wonderful people and it was such a vibrant community. If I don’t write these things down, I may forget them, and so will everybody else.”
Crook’s talent for careful observation began early. As a child, after emerging from viewing a movie musical, she discovered she could sing all its songs word-for-word. When penning her first non-fiction book — on adoption — , her editor urged her to record her field interviews electronically. “No,” she replied. “I don’t need to record them — I always remember.” She finally relented, more to appease the editor than for her own ends.
Amid Crook’s accounts of her far-flung nursing duties, she portrays the beguiling social life of Cariboo communities. However, among the charms of the landscape and hospitality of its denizens she encountered endemic racism directed at Indigenous people. The systems of health care, social welfare, justice, and even religion were — she realized — “designed to keep Indigenous people apart and in poverty.”
Recollecting those conditions six decades later, Crook said that the shock has not yet abated. “I had friends in the Indigenous community. And I started to see things that were not fair. I’m an advocate, but I can’t say I’m a crusader or anything. I just try and do my civil best.”
While later completing her Ph.D in the UBC Faculty of Education, Crook conducted research on Indigenous education in Hazelton. She was buoyed to see efforts underway to revive traditional languages and heritage. “I know very well the language holds the culture,” she said.
Always Bring a Candle dispels the cowboys-and-loggers stereotypes of B.C.’s heartland prevalent in the 1960s—and today. “People do go to the Cariboo looking for a romantic vision of cowboy life,” she said. “But it’s not that simple. It’s a complex community, rich and interesting.”
Always Pack a Candle: A Nurse in the Cariboo-Chilcotin is available for purchase from online retailers as well as Talewind Books in Sechelt and the EarthFair Store in Madeira Park.